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Group Creativity

written by Kathryn Britton 7 December 2009

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, 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.

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Angus 8 December 2009 - 4:41 pm

Hey Kathryn!

A great distillation of much material. This is fascinating. Normally, in my experience, we think of group processes as collective emotions – e.g. Bion. And I am sure those group waves exist. But this distills matters down to individual moods – obviously very relevant and we now have the technologies (techniques) to understand these interactions better. Progress!

Best all

Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar 8 December 2009 - 4:49 pm

Another great article, Kathryn! You make excellent points about how feeling safe is important to group creativity, and how to make our group efforts more productive. Thanks!

Amanda 9 December 2009 - 3:34 am


A very interesting article, showing the complexities around positive / negative. It would be great to see further studies which dig deeper into these complexities and further elaborate on the broaden and build theory in groups, and the 3:1 ratio.
I do love the final comment “safe and lively” and the space it creates for great ideas to emerge.

Thank you!


Jeremy McCarthy 9 December 2009 - 11:03 am

Hi Kathryn, Great intro to a complex subject. I especially love your conclusion.

I think an interesting question is WHEN to brainstorm. I believe brainstorming can stimulate creativity and can lead to multiple ideas. It can also lead to paralysis of choice and dilution of ideas. I use brainstorming a lot in my work because I think it’s a good way to quickly get the collective wisdom of a group of people while also engaging them and bringing them together towards a common goal. But I also recognize that collective wisdom is not by definition better than the wisdom of one individual with the right answer. One of my favorite business articles (from Inc. magazine) was called “Collaboration is the hottest buzzword in business today . . . too bad it doesn’t work” citing the dilution of ideas into the lowest common denominator that occurs when too many people get involved. Like anything else, it’s about finding the right balance . . . knowing when to tap into the power of the group and when to trust in individual leadership.

One of the best group brainstorming sessions I had was spent talking about how to do the things “we would do if we could, but they are impossible so we don’t.” This topic was a great creativity stimulator. It is amazing what you can accomplish when you start working on the impossible!

Senia 10 December 2009 - 6:28 am

I love the place of anger in brainstorming – cognitive persistence.
Much as I enjoy happy emotions, I love knowing when to use which range of emotions to what effect.

Thanks – what a great follow-up to the individual creativity article!

I think it’s cool that Angus, Marie-Jo, Amanda, and Jeremy all comment in various ways on how you make the complex into simple in this article. My dad used to say that when I was little – and still does – that if we understand a topic, we should be able to explain it to a 5-year-old. I really like the explanation of the Hargadon and Sutton research – it makes a lot of sense. I’d seen it referenced before, but really feel that I got it from your article. Thanks.


Kathryn Britton 10 December 2009 - 11:20 am

I’m not sure what a collective emotion is, though that idea does remind me of Robert Wright’s Nonzero, where the first part of the book is about the evolution of nonzero relationships in society and the second part is about the evolution of nonzero relationships within the body.

We think of ourselves as units, but that unity is made up of trillions of cells — and the cells include mitochondria, which once upon a time were separate beings. They have their own genes and evolve within the niche of our cells.

So maybe there are collective emotions, but as small parts of the whole, it’s hard to see them.


Kathryn Britton 10 December 2009 - 11:28 am

I think feeling safe is important for being able to share incomplete proto-ideas and for tolerating the disorder that lets new ideas arise. You’ve been very interested in right-brain activity, right? It seems to be more active in a positive hedonic state.

Perhaps safety is not so important for the persistence of working through an idea down to its last detail.

I thought it was interesting to see a place for both hedonic states in the overall experience of creativity.

Kathryn Britton 10 December 2009 - 11:30 am

Creating that safe and lively space between people where new ideas can arise is one of the attractions of the coaching profession, right?

I’ll keep my eye out for more creativity research addressing hedonic levels.


Kathryn Britton 10 December 2009 - 11:42 am

The dilution of ideas to the lowest common denominator was another explanation proffered for lower quality idea production associated with group brainstorming. I expect that’s where training and planning come in. What’s the right number of people? How do they behave in the process? I was tickled also by the expression, “social loafing.”

I’ve done a lot of brainstorming and have found it very successful in groups no more than about 10 people where there is a specific purpose and people follow the rules, especially “Defer judgment,” and “Build on the ideas of others.” For example, I remember a meeting at the end of a product development cycle where we brainstormed for ideas of patents we might be able to file, came up with 26, whittled them down to 8, and then actually filed 5. Everybody in the group contributed, but making that possible takes some facilitation skill, since there are status differences in a group. It can take some effort to make the context safe enough for the lower status members to speak up.

That brings me to another subject that fascinates me, which is the whole impact of status on individual performance in a group context. But that’s a topic for another day.

I’ll look for the article you mention. Its title irritates me — it displays that broad-brush urge to shock that often obscures information (but makes publications memorable — like the Sadder but Wiser title). Yes, I’m sure there are contexts where collaboration is not the best approach, at least according to certain evaluation criteria. But to make a blanket statement that it doesn’t work. Tccchhhhhh. Has the author ever worked on a high performance team?

I found the research from Baruah and Paulus interesting here — and the suggestion that perhaps alone-to-group might result in a greater quantity of ideas.


Kathryn Britton 10 December 2009 - 11:45 am

Being able to make ideas clear and accessible to people who don’t want or need to become experts is one of my top motivations. I’m overjoyed when I succeed.

Timothy T.C. So 10 December 2009 - 9:44 pm

Beautiful article!! I like the research by De Dreu, Baas, and Nijstad, thanks for sharing. The couple of books you cited all look great. If I want to pick up one must-read, what would be your recommendation?


Jeremy McCarthy 13 December 2009 - 11:53 am

Thanks Kathryn,

I liked your comments here. I can see your perspective on the article and especially it’s sensationalistic title. Having worked in organizations where good ideas get collaborated to death, the title rang true to me. But I think you bring up some very good points and it probably does come down to a training issue. Or perhaps it’s a “style” issue. There is good collaboration and bad collaboration. So we should move the discussion away from “is collaboration good or bad?” towards “what makes collaboration effective?” I think this is where your article begins to lead us, so we just need to keep getting deeper. I hope you keep writing on these subjects!

Kathryn Britton 15 December 2009 - 2:29 pm

Well put, Jeremy. Let’s study when collaboration does and does not work so we can get better at it. Thinking of Robert Wright’s book, Nonzero, it seems rather silly to say it doesn’t work. We humans have been collaborating at broader and broader social levels all during our history. Does it always work? No. But the existence of failures is not proof that something never works.

Your comment about collaborating an idea to death reminds me of decision-making in organizations. Sometimes we just need someone to make a decision so that we can move on, preferably after hearing different points of view. Otherwise we can get into organizational paralysis that is a bit like individuals maximizing — see the review of Tal Ben Shahar’s book here: https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/amanda-horne/200909035149

Thanks for the stimulating discussion.

Kathryn Britton 15 December 2009 - 2:33 pm

I’ve read the one by Nancy Andreasen and liked it quite a bit. I included the Osborn titles because that takes us back to the source on brainstorming, but I haven’t read them myself. The Sparks of Genius book is on my to-read list.

One of my readers sent in a suggestion to look at the Luminosity web site for brain exercises. You might find it interesting — http://www.lumosity.com/



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