It’s human friction that makes the sparks!


Collaboration has increased significantly in driving creative activities and innovations over the past few decades in place of the lone and eccentric geniuses of the previous century. This should be no surprise given our problems are complex and one brain just doesn’t seem to be enough. But how do we organise and foster group creativity?

Brainstorming has been one of the most popular ways of drawing out group creativity for more than half a century. We have always been taught that the number one rule of getting creative ideas from a group is ‘don’t judge or criticise too early’. If people are scared of saying the wrong thing they will end up saying nothing at all. In any succesful creative brainstorm there are 2 further golden rules – ‘go for quantity’ and ‘defer judgement’.

However, my experience, which seems to be supported by recent studies, suggests traditional brainstorming just doesn’t work. It doesn’t unleash the potential of each individual in the group. In fact I find that often you do better by working alone first and then pooling ideas later.

So we need to work in groups (because problems are more complex), and the most interesting solutions lie on the intersections of disciplines so we need to gather different people with different perspectives in our groups; but if brainstorming doesn’t work then how should we organise and foster group creativity?

The key seems to be counter to popular belief. Creativity can thrive with conflict, and disagreement as it encourages us to engage more fully and continually reassess our viewpoints. The other lesson is that exposure to alternative viewpoints causes us to review our assumptions and consider new perspectives.

Authentic and sincere criticism allows us to dig below the surface of imagination and come up with less predictable ideas. This is very different to the conventional wisdom around brainstorming.

Studies done on scientific research teams and film production teams suggest: if a group is not known to each other collaboration is hard, if it is too familiar with each other you risk group think. The best collaboration is achieved with a diverse group people and an intermediate level of social intimacy. The best teams mix old friends/collaborators with some newbies. One thing is for sure, it takes time to develop successful collaboration.

Physical space also matters – if you want people to work effectively you need to organise your space such that you have frequent, physical and spontaneous interactions. Steve Jobs arranged his offices around a central atrium so different people from the company (and guests) – artists, writers, marketing, geeks, etc – could bump into each other frequently. This was no accident. He put the bathrooms, mailboxes, drinks machines around the atrium so it was impossible not to run into people.

When the composition of the group is right, mindsets are open and there is enough opportunity for people with different perspectives to freely debate with each other – the creative process will take care of itself.

Further reading: Jonah Lehrer “Imagine – How creativity works”.