Can Groups Be Creative?

It would be easy to become anti-teamwork after reading "The Rise of the New Groupthink", a Sunday New York Times opinion piece written by Susan Cain, author of the forthcoming book, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking". She writes a thought-provoking article that challenges the prevailing thinking about employee innovation and creativity. In effect, she makes the case for solo innovation. While I agree that organizations try to do too much in groups, I fear that an article like this might prompt managers to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Cain starts with this generalization about workplaces:

Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.

This describes the image, not the reality. First of all, most of us are in work groups, not teams, at least not the kind of teams that Katzenbach and Smith (and others) define as being a team. And work group meetings tend to be poorly planned and badly run. I've posted about this previously. As for people skills, managers sure don’t act like these are prized abilities. A command-and-control management style still dominates the workplace. And regarding collaboration, too few managers and employees know how to collaborate effectively. To them, collaboration means ccing everyone on an email.

There is much rhetoric about teamwork and collaboration, but these behaviors are still very rare in organizations today. So to indict the current work environment as not being conducive to creativity and innovation because it is too collaborative misses what is actually happening in the typical workplace. In fact, employees are not collaborative enough.

Cain is also critical of group brainstorming. She writes,

…brainstorming sessions are one of the worst possible ways to stimulate creativity…The reasons brainstorming fails are instructive for other forms of group work, too. People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others' opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure.

I believe the problem is in the implementation, not the method. Any group that makes a list of ideas these days calls it "brainstorming". This is not the kind of brainstorming which results in new and better ideas. When done right, brainstorming is free-flowing, non-judgmental, and relies on the dynamic interaction of everyone in the group, regardless of status. Unfortunately, every manager thinks that he or she can manage a brainstorming session. After all, how difficult can it be to ask a question and make a list of the answers? However, effective brainstorming requires highly skilled facilitation and not every manager has the skills and temperament needed to provide this to a group. An effective brainstorming leader ensures that everyone is engaged in the work, encourages everyone to contribute their own feelings and beliefs to the conversation, and doesn’t allow one or two people to dominate the conversation.

Isolating everyone and putting up barriers to interaction is just as counterproductive as forcing everyone to interact with others all day long. Some people need some quiet and solitude to be at their productive best and some people need some social interaction. Even the research cited by Cain supports this notion. Not everyone in the research populations she cited seeks isolation. The last thing you want to do is label someone "introvert" based on an assessment tool and then make that person toil alone until they come up with the next big idea. While some people can’t tolerate frequent interruptions, becoming tense and irritable, others thrive on the chaos and perform best in that kind of high-energy, social environment.

We need to do a better job of helping employees figure out in what kinds of environments and on what kinds of projects they work best and provide those conditions for them. We need managers who take responsibility for helping employees optimize performance. And we need leaders who can build teams that nurture creative and innovative thinking.

Source: Stephen Gill,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Last modified: Tuesday, October 27, 2020, 8:28 PM