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Creativity: better alone or in groups?

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It now suggests creativity is all about being in teams, brainstorming together, bouncing ideas around in a non-judgemental way. In essence, it’s very much a case of the more the merrier.

So who is right? Was Ernest Hemingway – who said ideas only came to him when “there is no one to disturb you,” – really so wrong? When The Red Hot Chilli Peppers chose to be holed-up in an isolated house to produce Blood Sugar Sex Magik, (one of their most successful albums), were they also so wrong? Do you really need to be part of a big group to have great ideas?

It was Picasso – one of the world’s most creative minds – who famously said “without great solitude no serious work can be done”. In effect, private revelation, (or having a Eureka! moment) was his key to divining creativity. Inspiration may come while in the bath, or while brushing your teeth, but integral to the process was having an unfettered, lonely environment.

Somewhere along the line though, workplace theory has gone completely the other way. It now suggests creativity is all about being in teams, brainstorming together, bouncing ideas around in a non-judgemental way. In essence, it’s very much a case of the more the merrier.

So who is right? Was Ernest Hemingway – who said ideas only came to him when “there is no one to disturb you,” – really so wrong? When The Red Hot Chilli Peppers chose to be holed-up in an isolated house to produce Blood Sugar Sex Magik, (one of their most successful albums), were they also so wrong? Do you really need to be part of a big group to have great ideas?

Challenging the group model

Leigh Thompson, professor at Kellogg School of Management and author of Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration certainly challenges the group model. She says: “Just because a group is physically together with others doesn’t necessarily mean that that is going to be the best thing for creative idea generation.” Her view is that while many minds make light work of problem solving, to suggest it leads to “big, wow thinking,” as she describes it, is a mistake. She says: “Studies of brainstorming show 75% of a group’s ideas come in the first 50% of time given allocated to them anyway. After that they run out of steam.”

Certainly, academics and psychologists concur that the problem with groups is the fact they nearly always contain a mixture of introverts and extraverts – those less or more comfortable in group environments. And, as creative individuals will often say, to think more people fuel creativity is potentially to misunderstand what fuels creativity in the first place.

Creative drivers

“For me, it’s time – or lack of it, that is my greatest creative driver,” admits LA-based composer Andrew McCluskey, who now runs a business selling music online. “Pressure causes creativity. I used to have the luxury of composing two or three 10 minute pieces of music a month,” says. “Now, with YouTube, and greater competition, I have to be more prolific. Yes, I have collaborators, but fear of falling behind is what pushes me me to be experimental. It’s a ‘me’ process.”

In the same way impending deadlines fan creative flames, having time to mull, and ponder – letting an idea sit on the mind and grow – is also regarded as kick-starting creative thinking – and again, research points this being a sole activity.

Creative environments

According to a study earlier this summer at the University of Minnesota, psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs discovered that an independent panel judged ideas derived from people’s own workstations in the office as more ‘interesting’ and worthy of more development than those in environments where groups were put together – in normally quite sterile rooms. The research suggests environment (feeling comfortable and familiar) is also linked to the quality of ideas people came up with.

“As soon as people understand that the brain is a machine, making assumptions based on experiences, then you can change the workplace to suit different people better,” supports Dr Steve Peters, the psychologist who famously works with the GB cycling team. “You just need to work out which assumptions are problematic – who reacts better to a group dynamic, and who doesn’t.”

He adds: “Our emotional state is 75% responsible for our success in life. Get people in the state they perform best in, and this will be the winning formula.”

Control and context

Arguably, this suggest that not herding people into artificial situations, but allowing staff to flourish in a way that gives them more of a sense of control is perhaps of greater importance than whether they are alone or not. “The greatest thing leaders in businesses can do right now is create the cultural ‘context’ that allows people – be it in groups or on their own – to be inspired,” argues Dov Seidman, author of How, Why and Why we Do Anything. He says: “Lack of creativity is down to us having an engagement crisis in the workplace. The problem is that HR spends too long on engagement, thinking it’s something that exists, that they can create. They should really be focusing on how they can inspire their people, because engagement is the byproduct of inspiration.”

Some 59% of staff rating themselves as ‘engaged’ say they have more creative ideas at work – according to research by David MacLeod, author of the government’s ‘Engage for Success’. This compares to only 3% of the disengaged who say the same thing.

Sharing ideas

This thinking, says Charlie Glynn, People Director of coffee chain Harris & Hoole, explains why it has deliberately moved its coffee making areas to where customers pick up their drinks (rather than behind the counter). “We want staff to interact with customers in a new way; by creating an environment in which they can share ideas, talk to each other, and co-create ideas about how things can be changed in the store, or in the coffee-making process. It’s collaborative, but in a way that staff can still be themselves.”

Clearly, creativity is about creating good conditions. However, it’s worth noting one final thought on the team vs individual debate. When Dr Paul Paulus, from the University of Texas recently compared the creative performance of people who worked alone and then went into their team, to people who worked in a team and then worked alone, he found compelling evidence suggesting the right way to create is to work individually, but then go to a group. The group, he argued still has a huge role in the incubation process, of processing, re-working creative ideas.

So, as with many things in life, perhaps the “creativity alone or in groups” debate is not an either/or question, but a blend of the two. Let us know what you think!

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