[R04] Group creativity

Many books and courses on creativity are about teaching individuals to become more creative. But in modern society, we often do not work alone but have to cooperate with other people in solving complex problems. Most big companies organise projects around teams of people with special expertise. Research in science and technology is increasingly done by teams of people. Science papers with multiple authors are cited more often than papers with single authors. This is also a growing trend in humanities research as well.

Brainstorming is perhaps the most well-known creative thinking technique for groups. The term was made popular by advertising executive Alex Osborn in his 1953 book Applied Imagination. The basic idea is for a group of people to meet together and try to come up with as many new ideas as possible. The most important requirement is to encourage the production of ideas by withholding criticisms or negative feedback.

However, the usefulness of brainstorming is often exaggerated because it does not always work:

  • If the objectives of the exercise are unclear, or the discussion is not very structured, the ideas produced might be too diffused and not practically useful.
  • Some people might be reluctant to present their ideas because they are worried about how others might judge them, even if they are not criticized.
  • A group might fixate on the first perceived solution and spends less effort to explore other alternatives.
  • It has been suggested that because it takes time to discuss ideas one by one, sometimes people forget their new ideas or give up talking about them.
  • There is the danger that group discussion will be dominated by more vocal individuals.

Because of the above problems, it is quite possible for a brainstorming group to produce fewer ideas than what the individuals would produce on their own. The effectiveness of brainstorming depends crucially on how it is implemented. A better way would be for give individuals some time to write their ideas down first, or to break up a group into smaller sub-groups for a preliminary discussion. Ideas can then be collected and discussed openly and perhaps anonymously, giving more emphasis on how to make them work rather than why they are mistaken.

Another well-known potential pitfall with group creativity is that of groupthink. This is the danger that a close-knit group with a uniform culture is unlikely to challenge its own ideas and is very set in its ways. Innovative breakthroughs become more difficult. A special effort to bring in new people or rotate group membership might be necessary. Asking team members to take up opposite roles to debate with each other might also help.

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