International experience broadens the mind

Apr 27 2009 by Nic Paton Print This Article

It's long been recognised that an international posting can be an almost sure-fire route to the top for the ambitious, up-and-coming manager.

A lot of the thinking behind such postings has historically been around their value in giving managers the independence and responsibility to sink or swim, exposing them to new cultures and working styles and giving them a global perspective on the business.

But new research has suggested such postings can also be vital in opening managers' minds and helping them to think more imaginatively and creatively.

The problem is that as more and more companies cut back on such expensive jet-set assignments, will managers of the future end up with a greater propensity for protectionist, tunnel-vision thinking?

A study by French business school Insead and Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and published by the American Psychological Association has concluded that living in another country is not only normally a cherished business experience for many managers, but can genuinely expand minds and horizons.

"Gaining experience in foreign cultures has long been a classic prescription for artists interested in stimulating their imaginations or honing their crafts. But does living abroad actually make people more creative?" said the study's lead author, William Maddux, an assistant professor of organisational behavior at Insead.

"It's a longstanding question that we feel we've been able to begin answering through this research," he added.

The research assessed five studies to test the idea that living abroad and creativity were linked.

In one, MBA students from the Kellogg School were asked to solve the Duncker candle problem, a classic test of creative insight.

In this problem individuals are presented with three objects on a table placed next to a cardboard wall: a candle, a pack of matches and a box of tacks.

The task is to attach the candle to the wall so that the candle burns properly and does not drip wax on the table or the floor.

The correct solution involves using the box of tacks as a candleholder Ė one should empty the box of tacks and then tack it to the wall placing the candle inside.

The solution is considered a measure of creative insight because it involves the ability to see objects as performing different functions from what is typical (in other words that the box is not just for the tacks but can also be used as a stand).

The results showed that the longer students had spent living abroad, the more likely they were to come up with the creative solution.

In another study, also involving Kellogg School MBA students, the researchers used a mock negotiation test involving the sale of a gas station.

In this, a deal based solely on sale price was impossible because the minimum price the seller was willing to accept was higher than the buyer's maximum.

However, because the two parties' underlying interests were compatible, a deal could be reached only through a creative agreement that satisfied both parties' interests.

Here again, negotiators with experience of living abroad were more likely to reach a deal that demanded creative insight.

In both studies, the amount of time spent traveling abroad did not matter, only the fact of having lived abroad was related to creativity.

Maddux and Kellogg's Adam Galinsky then ran a follow-up study to see why living abroad was related to creativity.

With a group of MBA students at Insead they found that the more students had adapted themselves to the foreign cultures when they lived abroad, the more likely they were to solve the Duncker candle task.

"This shows us that there is some sort of psychological transformation that needs to occur when people are living in a foreign country in order to enhance creativity. This may happen when people work to adapt themselves to a new culture," said Galinsky.

Although these studies showed a strong relationship between living abroad and creativity, the APA cautioned that they did not prove that living abroad and adapting to a new culture actually cause people to be more creative.

"We just couldn't randomly assign people to live abroad while others stay in their own country," said Maddux.

To help get at this question of what caused someone to be creative, the authors tried a technique called "priming".

In two experiments, they asked groups of undergraduate students at the Sorbonne in Paris to recall and write about a time they had lived abroad or adapted to a new culture. Other groups were asked to write about other experiences, such as going to the supermarket, learning a new sport or simply observing but not adapting to a new culture.

The results showed that priming students mentally to recreate their past experiences living abroad or adapting to a new culture caused students, at least temporarily, to be more creative. For example, these students drew space aliens and solved word games more creatively than students primed to recall other experiences.

"This research may have something to say about the increasing impact of globalization on the world, a fact that has been hammered home by the recent financial crisis," said Maddux.

"Knowing that experiences abroad are critical for creative output makes study abroad programs and job assignments in other countries that much more important, especially for people and companies that put a premium on creativity and innovation to stay competitive," he added.

But the difficulty for managers is that, while they may recognise the value then of giving people international experience, the reality is that, in cash constrained times, there are simply fewer postings and expatriate programmes to go around.

A survey by the website in March, for example, found that more and more companies were, very understandably in the current economic climate, cracking down on all-but-essential international postings and expatriate programmes.

Companies had even begun calling expats back home early from multi-year assignments, sometimes as much as a year in advance, and particularly where assignments were specifically for career development rather than operational purposes.