Do group dynamics stifle innovation?

May 25 2010 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Maybe group brainstorms aren't so effective after all. In fact according to some fascinating new research outlined here on Knowledge@Wharton, many great ideas are killed because of group dynamics.

In a paper entitled,

Idea Generation and the Quality of the Best Idea, Wharton professors Christian Terwiesch and Karl Ulrich and INSEAD professor Karan Girotra, argue that group dynamics - and thus group brainstorms - are the enemy of businesses trying to encourage creativity and innovation.

Instead, the trio found that a period of quiet contemplation (or good old fashioned individual thinking) prior to group discussions is the key to more effective innovation.

Through a series of experiments, they found that a hybrid process - in which people are given time to brainstorm on their own before discussing ideas with their peers - resulted in more and better quality ideas than a purely team-oriented process.

One reason for this is that traditional corporate structures are prejudicial to creativity. According to Christian Terwiesch: "People like having a process because they understand that it's fair. In a typical brainstorming meeting, it's not fair and everybody knows it: The boss is always right."

Another is the problem of "group think" - that is, individuals tending to suggest ideas similar to those already proposed by the group.

"If a group is working together on an idea that's already on the table, you're wary of coming in with your own agenda because you might be seen as selfish and not a team player. So you build on the idea that is currently on the table," Terwiesch said.

That's not the case with the hybrid process, which captures those vital initial thoughts without fear of them being stifled by the tyranny of the group.

The difference this makes is startling. The average quality of the ideas generated by the hybrid process were deemed to be some 30 per cent better than the output of a "traditional" group brainstorm, while the hybrid process also resulted in about three times more ideas than the traditional method.

More importantly, however, the best ideas generated by the hybrid process tended to be very good indeed - better than the best ideas produced in the traditional way.

And that's critical, because as Christian Terwiesch points out, when it comes to innovation, it isn't the "average" ideas that matter. It's the best ones.

"When it comes to innovation, however, what really matters is not getting many good ideas, but getting one or two exceptional ideas. That's really what innovation is all about," he says.

Two clear messages emerge from this research. First, hierarchical organisational structures do not aid creativity. But second, neither does an open-ended, structure-free process. In fact what Terwiesch describes as " providing very specific process guideposts for individuals" helps to bring out the best in people.

That's something that Edward de Bono, probably the world's best known exponent of creative thinking, echoes very strongly. Writing on Management-Issues last month, de Bono discussed the importance of "deliberate thinking" - setting aside some time to do nothing other than thinking about a defined focus.

The problem with thinking that 'just happens' around a subject, de Bono says, is that mental attention follows from one point to the next in the normal, routine way. Deliberate thinking, however, is different in that attention is directed according to the framework in use.

All of which poses some real challenges to managers if they are better to harness the latent creativity that exists within all organisations.

As de Bono adds, "the thinking manager must take up the role of encouraging and organising deliberate thinking. It is the role of the thinking manager to arrange the drawing up of formal focus lists. It is the role of the thinking manager to organise any training and consultation that is necessary in the area of thinking. It is the role of the thinking manager to arrange 'new thinking' sessions in order to generate new ideas and perceptions, and to take action regarding any possibilities that exist."