It’s Down to Preference

It happens once or twice a year. An innovation theorist, organizational consultant, or accredited author/blogger writes an article blasting some aspect of the collective creative process. There’s a flurry of responses and rebuttals, and a digging-in of the heels in each camp, those for or against, each with their own case for the best way to induce creative thinking.

The most recent example of this: a New York Times piece The Rise of New Groupthink, in which Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, laments the prevalence of group brainstorming and creative teamwork. While she doesn’t entirely disavow the value of creative collaboration, her premise is that team methodology is counterproductive for introverts, to whom she attributes most creative advances.

A number of innovation practitioners responded to her article, here, here and here, and many of the comments that followed her piece were intelligent and thoughtful, continuing the debate for or against creativity in a group setting. When all the dust settles, we think there’s one point that’s most salient: people’s individual preferences.

Some people thrive in a group setting, and their creative flow is sparked by the frenetic and popcorn-style of a fast meeting with lots of ideas, or even if it’s not fast, in an environment where ideas are exchanged and developed by a number of people. Others – probably more introverted – think better when they’re operating solo. They solve problems and get more new ideas by brainstorming alone, preferring to work out solutions on their own, checking in only occasionally with mentors and colleagues when they need a sounding board. There’s still the need for collaboration, but it’s much more informal and unstructured. (What you don’t hear much about are the ambiverts: people who function just fine in groups, but also like to have alone-time.)

The balance of group vs. individual isn’t the only bias to address: Some people have a natural drive to seek disruptive ideas that will break paradigms. Others are more inclined to tweak and improve, and take pleasure in the gentler steps of adaptive creativity. “Breakthrough” thinking gets a lot of hype, but we know that adaptive creativity is equally important to the more revolutionary style of the innovator. Part of our work as facilitators is to identify what kinds of challenges require what kind of approach – and to acknowledge the value of both types of problem solvers.

There are other preferences to consider within the creative process. While some people may excel when it comes to generating ideas, others are stronger at clarifying the problem and getting at root causes. Some people get more energy from taking the seed of an idea and strengthening it. Others do their best work when it comes to implementing. Here’s another bias in our field: towards idea generation. Except we know you can have a hundred great ideas, but if they solve the wrong problem, or if they’re not fully thought-out and implemented well, they don’t amount to much more than a few interesting ideas.

We tell participants at the beginning of our group workshops that suffering is optional: if the activities we propose don’t work for you and you need to go off an have a think on your own, that’s fine. Often we’ll interrupt a series of consecutive group activities and give everyone some time to themselves, to incubate individually and process everything that’s been discussed and let their own ideas emerge, quietly.

Yet we know, from research as well as experience, that it is the collaboration within our programs that leads to innovative results. Collecting a group of people with different perspectives and leaving them to discuss, debate and cross-pollinate has resulted in novel research proposals that even the most introverted of our participants agree could not have been dreamed up without the mixing of minds in the group.

There’s no one right or best way to be innovative. What’s important is to pay attention to our biases and accommodate the differing thinking styles and preferences of our colleagues. It also means we need to encourage people to be aware of what helps their own creative process, whether working in teams or alone, and to take responsibility for it so that everyone gets to do their best thinking, and under the best possible conditions.

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Know Further: Some research on introverts and extroverts and creative performance. The Top Ten myths about introverts. There’s a forum just for introverts. Could you be both extroverted and introverted? And a bit more about the other styles and preferences mentioned above: the Kirton Adaption Innovation Inventory, and Foursight.