The New Groupthink – how to kill creativity at work

bigstock-Evolution-Of-Idea-40951048-smallMost highly creative ideas are formulated by people working alone. At a time when innovation is essential for competitive advantage in business, organisations would do well to ensure their employees have quiet spaces in which to think deeply and create.

After a recent period of annual leave I noticed a very interesting phenomenon which Susan Cain discusses in her best selling book, Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking*.

I had a quiet, peaceful, relaxing break during which I spent a lot of time going to the beach, reading, seeing movies, going out for coffee and other nice things. I did the same thing last year when I had two weeks off and spent four relaxing days in Byron Bay.

During both these breaks I noticed that my creativity soared. I had lots of good ideas which I successfully implemented (including to start this blog) and I did plenty of creative writing.

“I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking” – Albert Einstein

But both times, when I returned to my corporate job, my creativity fell. It didn’t disappear but it reduced noticeably. During the holidays, creative ideas popped into my head all the time. Now, back at work, coming up with ideas is much more of a conscious, rather than an unconscious, process. I find I have to draw ideas to me, like reeling in feisty fish, rather than having them jump into my boat by themselves.

Back in 2009, I chose to drop my corporate work days from five to four. When I walked out of the office after my last five-day working week I felt elated. My mind went wild thinking of all the options now open to me because I now had 50% more free time. And the period since has indeed been a highly creative and productive time for me. But was it only because I now had more free time or because of the reduction in distractions?

In Quiet, Susan Cain discusses people who have changed the course of history with their creative ideas – they worked alone. Steve Wozniak didn’t design the first personal computer as part of a team. Einstein’s theory of relativity wasn’t the result of a committee. Carl Jung’s paradigm-shifting insights didn’t come out of a brainstorming session. They all worked alone as do many highly creative people.

At work, in an open plan office in a large corporation, I’m an introvert required to extrovert most of the day. Constant distractions are normal and regular meetings and team activities are expected. If I need to create I work from a coffee shop, the side of the river or from home, anywhere but the office.

Susan Cain talks about the New Groupthink that ‘…elevates teamwork above all else.’ At a time when innovation is essential to maintain a competitive edge, businesses make it virtually impossible to work quietly alone. But this is essential for the deep thinking that leads to great ideas that will maintain their competitive advantage.

Cain also cites studies showing that employees with ‘acceptably private’ workspaces are more productive, less likely to leave the organisation, and even have better health outcomes than those without. Interruption is ‘one of the biggest barriers to productivity’ and the effectiveness of multi-tasking has been well-proven to be a myth. Cain mentions 40 years of research showing that brainstorming doesn’t actually work, that individuals produce more, and often better, ideas on their own than in groups.

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So why do we fanatically continue with teams? One reason is that chance interactions with people fuel idea generation. Innovation is positively correlated with the size of one’s community – cities generate more innovation than country towns.

I believe another reason is that teams are great for implementing ideas. When you have to get a practical job done such as organising a conference, running a school or building the first personal computer, many hands make light work. But this is very different from coming up with the idea of a conference, school or personal computer in the first place.

The idea to create TED Talks came from the insight of founder Richard Saul Wurman who noticed a powerful convergence of Technology, Entertainment and Design. But he couldn’t have made TED the world-wide phenomenon it is today by himself.

So, my three recommendations:

  1. Know thyself – are you an introvert or extrovert? More of a creator or doer?
  2. If you are a creator and/or introvert, start carving out quiet, alone-time for yourself as much as possible and watch your creativity and productivity soar. Ideally this would include some time each day in meditation.
  3. If you are a business owner or leader, think long and hard about your open plan offices, your meeting culture (expectations and technology), and your provision of quiet work spaces. Investigate the research Susan Cain mentions. Your decisions now could affect the success and longevity of your business well into the future.

Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking (2012) Viking/Penguin, U.K.

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