Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
Last month I wrote about individual creativity. This month I want to explore creativity in groups. What behaviors and environmental factors foster collective creativity? I’ll start with brainstorming as a group activity and conclude with the impact of mood on creativity.
Two years ago, Peter Coughlan, the leader of the Transformation Practice of the design firm, IDEO spoke at the Appreciative Inquiry Conference. He handed out cards with 7 tips for effective brainstorming:
- Defer Judgment
- Encourage Wild Ideas
- Build on the Ideas of Others
- Stay Focused on Topic
- One Conversation at a Time
- Be Visual
- Go for Quantity
Using that approach, group brainstorming sounds very much like the mental process that precedes creativity in individuals, as described by Dr. Nancy Andreasen:
“They begin with a process during which the associative links run wild, creating new connections, many of which might seem strange or implausible. This disorganized mental state may persist for many hours, while words, images, and ideas collide. Eventually order emerges and with it the creative product.”
So in groups, perhaps the purpose of brainstorming is to keep creative disorder going long enough for a wide range of ideas to collide and combine in new and interesting ways.
Is Group Brainstorming Effective?
Group brainstorming was popularized in 1957 by Alex Osborn, who claimed that it resulted in better idea generation than individuals working alone. Many researchers disagree. Some have found that groups had lower productivity than individuals working alone, possibly because of apprehension about having their ideas evaluated by others, possibly because of social loafing, possibly because of production blocking where people are waiting for their turn to speak.
Hargadon and Sutton of Stanford University argue that research conclusions pointing to lower productivity from group brainstorming have a very narrow definition of productivity — usually the quantity of ideas generated. They also observed that controlled studies generally ignore context, using people who have no training in brainstorming and are not planning to use the ideas they generate.
Hargadon and Sutton performed extensive ethnographic studies of the IDEO design firm for more than a year, including interviews, observations, surveys, and informal conversations. Brainstorming was a common theme. They found that brainstorming served the following purposes in addition to generating new ideas:
- supporting the organizational memory of design solutions
- providing skill variety (part of facilitating a brainstorming meeting was figuring out the right mix of people to invite)
- supporting an attitude of wisdom — acting with knowledge while doubting what one knows
- creating a status auction – a place for people to display their technical skills
- impressing clients
- providing income
IDEO designers also indicated that brainstorming skills took time to learn.
Impact of Training
Baruah and Paulus of the University of Texas at Arlington studied the impact of training on the effectiveness of group brainstorming. They had a control group that got no training. They also had some people who brainstormed first with a group and then continued generating ideas on their own (group-to-alone) while others first thought of ideas on their own and then brainstormed in a group (alone-to-group).
The training covered most of the points on the IDEO card. Participants were told, for example, to stay on topic — no explanations or stories. Additional tips included:
- Diversity Tips: Generate as many ideas as you can based on your own gender, ethnic group, location, expertise, age, etc.
- Attention Tips: Listen to other’s ideas and build on them.
- Unique Idea Tips: Link and unlink attributes and objects. Put things together in new ways or take them apart in new ways.
Baruah and Paulus tested both the quality and quantity of ideas generated in untrained versus trained groups and in alone-to-group and group-to-alone sequences. They found the training made a significant difference in both sequences, and that the alone-to-group sequence produced a higher quantity of ideas (though not higher quality) than the group-to-alone sequence.
How Does Mood Affect Creativity?
De Dreu, Baas, and Nijstad at the University of Amsterdam studied the impact of mood on creativity. They characterize moods along two dimensions: hedonic tone (positive versus negative) and level of arousal. In their experiments, they found that people tend to be more creative at moderate levels of arousal. That is, elation and anger are more conducive to creative thinking than serenity and depression. They associate the two different hedonic tones with different routes to creativity. Positive moods are associated with cognitive flexibility and inclusion, while negative moods are associated with cognitive persistence.
They explain that the capacity for complex thinking is altered in a curvilinear fashion as arousal increases. Low levels of arousal lead to inactivity, avoidance, neglect of information, and low performance. Extremely high levels of arousal reduce the ability to perceive and process information. Moderate levels are associated with motivation to seek information and consider multiple alternatives. Moderately activated mood states are associated with higher levels of dopamine and greater working memory capacity.
In positive mood states, people feel safe and are less constrained, more willing to take risks, and more likely to explore new concepts in a loose and open way. Positive emotion facilitates cognition in the right hemisphere, which is holistic and analogical.
In negative mood states, people perceive their situations as problematic and threatening, and tend to embark on more constrained and analytical approaches. Negative emotion facilitates left hemispherical processing that is more verbal and sequential.
Their experiments showed strong support for the impact of arousal on creativity, and moderate support for their hypotheses about different hedonic states leading to different routes to creativity.
In my own experience, ideas emerge from the spaces between people, especially when they feel both safe and lively.
Andreasen, N. (2005). The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius. New York: Plume Books.
Baruah, J. & Paulus, P. B. (2008). Effects of training on idea generation in groups. Small Group Research, 39, 523-541.
De Dreu, C. K. W., Baas, M. & Nijstad, B. A. (2008). Hedonic tone and activation level in the mood–creativity link: Toward a dual pathway to creativity model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94 (5), 739–756.
Osborn, A. F. (1963). Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Problem Solving. (3rd ed.) New York: Scribner.
Sutton, R. I. & Hargadon, A. (1996). Brainstorming groups in context: Effectiveness in a product design firm. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41, 685-718.
Health Prototype Candidates courtesy of juhansonin
Co-workination Brainstorming (Thinking Together) courtesy of boboroshi
Brainstorms at INDEX: Views courtesy of Jacob Bøtter
099/365 (person thinking) courtesy of stuartpilbrow.