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Brainstorms actually stifle creativity

Back in 1940s, advertising executive Alex Osborn argued that it was possible to enhance creativity by putting a group of people in a room and have them follow a simple set of rules, like coming up with as many thoughts as possible, encouraging wild and exaggerated ideas, not criticizing or evaluating anyone’s comments. Not surprisingly it became a hit. Over the years, organizations around the world have encouraged their employees to tackle key problems using this approach, commonly known as brainstorming.

But the scientists aren’t convinced. (Nor am I). Brian Mullen from the University of Kent at Canterbury and his colleagues analyzed twenty studies that tested efficacy of group brainstorming and discovered that in the vast majority of experiments, participants working on their own produced a higher quantity and quality of ideas than those working in groups.

The reason, group brainstorming fails, is because of a phenomenon called ‘social loafing’. Simply put it is diffusion of responsibility. When people work on their own, their success or failure is entirely due to their own abilities and hard work. If they do well, the glory is theirs. If they fail, they carry the can. However, add people to the situation and everyone stops trying so hard, safe in the knowledge that, though they will not receive personal praise if the group does well, they can always blame others if it performs badly.

Years of brainstorming may have inadvertently been stifling, not stimulating, creative juices. So have faith in yourself, work alone, regroup to discuss your ideas with your team and kick ass.

Self-portrait by Mayur Tekchandaney

Playing musical chairs improves creativity

There are two schools of thought relating to group dynamics and creativity. One believes in keeping teams constant, believing that the comfort of the team members with each other, makes it easier for them to come up with creative ideas. In contrast, the other school of thought is that mixing team members generates new patterns of thinking.

To find out which one really works, Charlan Nemeth and Margaret Ormiston from University of California conducted a test. Groups of people were asked to think of new ways of solving real problems like boosting tourism in San Francisco bay area. Then team members of half of those groups were kept constant, whereas the other half of the groups had their team members mixed to form new teams. Those that remained together rated their groups as friendlier and more creative. However from the perspective of creativity, the newly formed groups generated significantly more ideas, and those ideas were judged to be more creative.

In another study conducted by Hoon-Seok Choi and Leigh Thompson, three-person groups were asked to think of as many uses as possible for a cardboard box. Then team members of half of those groups were kept constant, and changed just one person in the other half of the groups. When asked to repeat the cardboard box task, analyses showed that the newcomer had helped increase the creativity of the two original team members.

With respect to group creativity, the message is clear: play musical chairs.

Illustration by Mayur Tekchandaney

Here’s a smart way of how design can be at the core of how your company does business. This was in the news in the US in 2008, but is increasingly becoming relevant to the way design can be applied to get better business results today.

U.P.S, the logistics company, realized that their trucks would sit in the left lane, engine idling, waiting for oncoming traffic to clear, so that it could make a left-hand turn, something that was wasteful — of time and peace of mind, for sure, but also of gas and therefore money. We’re talking about more than 95,000 big brown trucks delivering packages every day. U.P.S realized that when you operate a gigantic fleet of vehicles, tiny improvements in the efficiency of each truck, translates to huge savings overall. So here’s what they did:

This design thinking helped UPS shave over 28.5 million miles off its delivery routes. That in turn resulted in saving roughly three million gallons of gas! It also reduced CO2 emissions by 31,000 metric tons.

So next time you are in any of the cramped metros of India (which would be quite often), plan your route so that you take as many free left turns as possible.

Illustration by Mayur Tekchandaney

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