creative groups

It’s been a while since we’ve knocked heads with our evil twin blog.  I can’t let this one pass. Peter Klein misrepresents the main point of this Jonah Lehrer New Yorker article, which dissects the myth that brainstorming leads to creativity and greater problem solving. Citing a quote by former orgtheory guest blogger Keith Sawyer – “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas” – Peter implies that groups would be more creative if they’d just let individuals work on their own. This fits nicely with a pure reductionist perspective but it’s not at all what the article is really trying to say.

This is the conclusion that Peter should have drawn from the essay: “[L]ike it or not, human creativity has increasingly become a group process.”  Lehrer goes on to cite research by my colleagues at Northwestern, Ben Jones and Brian Uzzi, which shows that both scientists and Broadway teams are more successful and creative when bringing together teams made up of diverse individuals. From an article in Science by Wuchty, Jones, and Uzzi:

By analyzing 19.9 million peer-reviewed academic papers and 2.1 million patents from the past fifty years, [Jones] has shown that levels of teamwork have increased in more than ninety-five per cent of scientific subfields; the size of the average team has increased by about twenty per cent each decade. The most frequently cited studies in a field used to be the product of a lone genius, like Einstein or Darwin. Today, regardless of whether researchers are studying particle physics or human genetics, science papers by multiple authors receive more than twice as many citations as those by individuals. This trend was even more apparent when it came to so-called “home-run papers”—publications with at least a hundred citations. These were more than six times as likely to come from a team of scientists.

And summarizing Uzzi’s and Spiro’s AJS paper on Broadway shows:

Uzzi devised a way to quantify the density of these connections, a figure he called Q. If musicals were being developed by teams of artists that had worked together several times before—a common practice, because Broadway producers see “incumbent teams” as less risky—those musicals would have an extremely high Q. A musical created by a team of strangers would have a low Q…..When the Q was low—less than 1.7 on Uzzi’s five-point scale—the musicals were likely to fail. Because the artists didn’t know one another, they struggled to work together and exchange ideas. “This wasn’t so surprising,” Uzzi says. “It takes time to develop a successful collaboration.” But, when the Q was too high (above 3.2), the work also suffered. The artists all thought in similar ways, which crushed innovation. According to Uzzi, this is what happened on Broadway during the nineteen-twenties, which he made the focus of a separate study. The decade is remembered for its glittering array of talent—Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II, and so on—but Uzzi’s data reveals that ninety per cent of musicals produced during the decade were flops, far above the historical norm. “Broadway had some of the biggest names ever,” Uzzi explains. “But the shows were too full of repeat relationships, and that stifled creativity.”

In short, Uzzi argues that teams that had intermediate levels of relationship density were more creative and more successful.

It’s not that groups aren’t effective generators of creativity. As these studies show, innovation tends to be produced via group processes. Knowledge production is increasingly a collective outcome. Rather than assume that people work best alone, we should think more carefully about what kinds of groups are optimally designed for producing creativity.  Diverse groups will be more creative than homogeneous groups. Groups that embrace conflict and critical thought will be less susceptible to groupthink than groups that avoid such conflict.  Groups made up of members who have little experience with outsiders will be less creative.  I agree with Peter that brainstorming is ineffectively taught in many classrooms, but rather than throw out the idea altogether, we should try to teach people how to design groups that are good at generating new ideas.

Written by brayden king

February 14, 2012 at 12:05 am

9 Responses

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  1. Brayden, I appreciate the attention, but you’re letting your anti-reductionism get in the way of a clear reading. I didn’t say that “groups would be more creative if they’d just let individuals work on their own.” My point was simply that group creativity is a complex and subtle process, as Lehrer’s piece nicely illustrates. I could hardly say much more in a short post that’s basically just a pointer.


    Peter Klein

    February 14, 2012 at 12:33 am

  2. You mean I’m not going to lure you into an argument over this one? When did you become so darn agreeable Peter?


    brayden king

    February 14, 2012 at 1:07 am

  3. It’s part of a clever and subtly evil plot to get you to let your guard down….


    Peter Klein

    February 14, 2012 at 1:35 am

  4. Sutton and Hargadon* (1996) did an interesting study of brainstorming that speaks to some of this. Their study was motivated by a similar premise to Sawyer (“[d]ecades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”) and then asked, if brainstorming is so ineffective, why might organisations keep using the process? Sutton and Hargadon used a longitudinal case study of IDEO to investigate this question and found six additional reasons why organisations might use brainstorming. The two I always found most interesting were the influence of brainstorming on organisational memory and the way brainstorming rules facilitate status auctions. The main thrust of the conclusion is that idea generation alone isn’t really a great indicator of effectiveness, but they also ask some interesting questions about the design and use of brainstorming sessions more broadly.




    February 14, 2012 at 8:15 am

  5. On the diversity and groupthink, my understanding of your excerpt is that there is a happy medium; too high and too low are both bad. This would, I think, contradict common wisdom in business education.

    One think that’s struck me is that Japanese often cite homogeneity for their successes (corporate and social), whereas Americans often cite their diversity as their strength. Is one wrong, or are they inhabiting different zones of that happy medium?



    February 14, 2012 at 11:50 am

  6. Sporkhero. Rong et al. (2011) indirectly deal with your Japan-American reflection.

    Briefly put: Heterogeneity (structural holes) have different impact in an American society, compared to Taiwain (which is not Japan, I know!).



    February 14, 2012 at 7:19 pm

  7. @Anonymous, thanks for the link. Indirect, but interesting as I live in Taiwan so thinking about the Jp-Tw-US triad.

    From casual observation, Jp and Tw do seem to value the thick-tie intermediary more than the lone expert (ie structural hole). Lately, pop culture in Jp seems to focus a lot on the lone expert. I don’t know if this represents a cultural shift, or is simply mimicking US shows.

    I don’t know enough yet about Tw pop culture to note any trends.



    February 15, 2012 at 1:19 am

  8. I posted a few link’s on Peter’s blog. Scott Berkun and Bob Sutton have both weighed in on the article as well. It’s fascinating to read so many reactions.



    February 15, 2012 at 3:47 am

  9. […] creative groups « […]


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