How To Improve Creative Collaboration

After decades of living in near obscurity, Einstein published his theory of general relativity a little over a century ago. He had toiled away for years on those problems, and when he finally figured out his theory, the rewards and recognition that followed completely changed his life.

But did he really deserve all the accolades? Many of his ideas were fleshed out through regular discussions with his long time friends, Grossman and Besso. Grossman, in particular, was a gifted mathematician who helped Einstein at crucial points. So was Einstein really a lone genius or just a smart collaborator?

The answer is both. Einstein was both a lone genius and a smart collaborator. While he relied on his collaborators for solving some key parts, he also provided the insights and ideas that led to the theories. Removing any of the two elements would have resulted in failure.  

All significant creative accomplishments are the product of both individual excellence and fruitful collaborations. And as the problems and challenges we face become more complex, the importance of collaboration is only going to increase. 

However, collaboration is not easy. For instance, several studies have found that group brainstorming is less effective than individual brainstorming. The challenges that get in the way of productive group work include social loafing, evaluation apprehension and production blocking. 

So the real challenge in creative problem solving, is finding ways to balance both individual and group work. Given the challenges involved in group work, here are some tips to improve the quality of collaboration:

Interleave Solo and Group Work

One way to improve the creativity in a collaborative setting is to allow for both individual and group times in the problem solving process. Asking students to think of ideas before presenting to the group avoids the problem of production blocking in the group setting. During the group session, ideas can be pooled and combined, and if followed by another solo session where everyone gets a chance to reflect on the results, the outcome can be much better than either solo or group work. 

Additionally, some kinds of tasks are better suited for individual or group settings. For example, solo work in the initial ideation phase produces better results whereas evaluating ideas as a group is more effective than evaluating individually. 

Assign Clear Roles

Collaborative work also works better when team members have complementary roles that all contribute to the bigger task. Team members are more prone to social loafing when they all work on the same task but when each team member had a separate task, they are more motivated to do their share. These results were true even when team members knew that their individual work is not going to be identified in the task. 

Increase Attention To Group Ideas

The advantage of collaboration from a creativity perspective comes from being able to combine different ideas in new ways, which is a cognitively demanding task. Simply sharing each others’ ideas in a group setting does not help as much. However, allocating time to listen to different ideas and asking students to reflect on all group ideas, with the intent to find ways to integrate multiple ideas can improve the overall creativity of the group. Having a more diverse group also helps in this case, as each person brings a different perspective to the table all of which could potentially be combined in interesting ways.  

Creativity requires both individual and group work to flourish. Truly creative ideas might start with an individual but really take wings when they meet other ideas and perspectives. Students need to build skills for both working independently and collaboratively, in a way that produces better solutions and learning. 

How to be an Original

Our world is rapidly becoming more complex. The kinds of challenges we face today, like the effects of technological advancement and global warming, will require unprecedented levels of innovation and ingenuity to solve. So what can we do now to ensure that we eventually overcome these challenges and move the world forward in a healthy direction?

The key might lie in developing people who not just excel at traditional academics (what most gifted programs focus on exclusively), but who can also think creatively and get their ideas adopted. Or, as the renowned organizational psychologist, Adam Grant, likes to call them –  “Originals”.

In his latest book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant notes that “Although child prodigies are often rich in talent and ambition, what holds them back from moving the world forward is that they don’t learn to be original. As they perform in Carnegie Hall, win the science Olympics, and become chess champions, something tragic happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new. The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies and beautiful Beethoven symphonies, but never compose their own original scores.

Using surprising insights sprinkled throughout the book, Grant shows how anyone can learn to be an Original. While his insights cover the gamut from coming up creative ideas to championing them effectively in the workplace, here are three learnings that would be useful to adopt even as early as elementary school age.

Generate Lots Of Ideas

The best way to find that creative, game-changing idea, is to have lots of ideas. In fact, that’s what the eminently creative people in all fields do. Mozart composed more than 600 pieces before he died at the age of thirty-five, but only a handful of them made it into London Philharmonic Orchestra’s 50 greatest pieces of classical music. Similarly, Edison, one of the most prolific inventors known, had over a thousand patents over his lifetime. While most people know him as the inventor of the lightbulb and the phonograph, few know that many of his ideas, like a creepy talking doll and concrete beds, completely failed. 

Oftentimes, a truly creative idea is lurking behind the less creative ones, and can only be seen after the other ideas have gotten out of the way. In a study done on the Alternate Uses Task, researchers found that participants arrived at more novel responses after the initial wave of obvious ones (after 9 responses, in their case). The researchers recommend that “To get more original solutions, one must push past and build upon the ideas generated first to arrive at the less obvious ideas and associations.

Even in an area like Mathematics, not typically considered a creative field, coming up with more than one solution to a problem has been shown to improve and deepen understanding in that topic.

Start With The Unfamiliar And Make It Familiar

One powerful technique to come with original ideas is to use an unfamiliar or novel starting point.  Justin Berg, a creativity expert at Stanford, asked people to design some novel products to help job interviewees as part of an experiment. When he gave them a familiar starting point of a 3-ring binder, most of the ideas that people could come up with were fairly obvious. But when he gave them a starting point of inline-skates for roller blading, the group generated ideas that were rated 37% higher in originality.

Starting with an unfamiliar or random stimulus helps people break free of the typical associations and forces them to find new ones, generating more unusual ideas. This is the underlying mechanism for the “Wacky Inventions” brainteaser and the Japanese art of Chindogu.

Develop An Artistic Hobby

A fascinating study that Adam highlights in his book, compared Nobel Prize-winning scientists to typical scientists who were equally technically proficient in their fields. The researchers found one surprising correlation –  the Nobel Prize winners were significantly more likely to be involved in arts than their less accomplished peers.  If the artistic hobby was drawing or painting, the likelihood of being a Nobel winner went up to 7x, and for performing arts like theater, dance or magic the odds were as high as 22x!

So why does that happen?

One reason is because an interest in arts is a reflection of a curious mind. But more importantly, the artistic hobby itself can help build new associations and spur new creative insights. The reason that Galileo was the first astronomer to discover mountains on the moon, was because he recognized the tell-tale zig-zag pattern of dark and light regions, due to his training in an artistic technique called chiaroscuro. As Adam Grant explains, “…it’s not just that a certain kind of original person seeks out exposure to the arts.  The arts also serve in turn as a powerful source of creative insight.

To learn more about originals, check out Adam’s insightful TED talk.

 

MindAntix Brainteaser: Many Uses

One of the most common divergent thinking tasks is the Alternate Uses (AU) Task where you take an everyday object and think of different uses it can be put to. For example, a cup could  be used as a flower vase or as a hat or even as a toy. Designed by psychologist J.P. Guilford in 1967, the Alternative Uses Task is used as a standard creativity task to evaluate fluency, flexibility, originality and elaboration of responses. But coming up with creative ideas is tricky because most people find it hard to move beyond their first strong associations. So, how can you jumpstart your brain into thinking of novel ideas?

In a study done on the Alternate Uses Task, researchers found that participants arrived at more novel responses after listing more obvious ones (typically after 10 or more responses). In a different study on divergent thinking strategies, researchers analyzed how participants responded to alternate uses and discovered some interesting patterns. They found four underlying mechanisms that people use to trigger new ideas: Memory Use (pull pre-known responses from memory), Property Use (pick a property and search for functions using that property), Broad Use (review the object against a broad use like “transport”), and Disassembly Use (pick a component of the object and find a use for it).

We can apply the three step process for creative thinking to our cup example to discover novel ideas in a more structured way. As the first step, we dissect the object into its properties (glass, metal, round), function (drink liquids from), or assumptions (hold liquids, kept open side up). In the next step, we can try and change one or more of these properties and then see if the resulting object could be used for something else. For instance,

  • instead of holding liquids, it could hold solids (vase, piggy bank, pencil holder).
  • if it was inverted it could be used as hat or a lamp shade.
  • if it was made of paper, you could cut the circle at the bottom and use that as a coin.

Once you dissect in many dimensions, you get many more starting points to modify things and come up with neat uses. In fact, the responses deemed most creative (property use) in the divergent thinking study fit neatly into the dissect and manipulate approach. You could also include the third step, associate, to increase your idea fluency. For example if you attach a string and a ball to the cup you could make a new kind of paddle ball or kendama.

So, when you attempt the “Many Uses” brainteasers (a loosely constrained version of Alternate Uses) on MindAntix, or similar problems elsewhere, try to dissect and change things to trigger more unusual connections. And remember, your best ideas will likely come in the second wave – after the more obvious ones.

3 Simple Tips For Smarter Brainstorming

In my last blog, I covered some of the cognitive reasons that hinder creative idea-generation. But there is another aspect – a social aspect – that makes brainstorming tricky. As part of coaching for Destination Imagination, I often found myself in this (familiar) situation – you ask your group a question and after the first couple of answers, everyone starts giving similar answers. As a result, you only get a few original ideas while plenty others aren’t even considered. Why does that happen and how do you get out of that mode?

Brainstorming was the brainchild of Alex Osborn, an advertising executive, who had pioneered the technique at his agency. To have an effective brainstorming session, Osborn proposed working in groups of six to ten and following four principles: “deferment of judgement”, “quantity breeds quality”, “free-wheeling is encouraged” and “combination and improvement are sought”. In essence, Osborn advocated focusing on generating as many ideas as possible, including wild and outlandish ones, while avoiding any criticisms and by building on each others’ ideas.

Osborn’s book outlining his brainstorming technique became an instant bestseller and brainstorming was quickly adopted in companies. However, decades of research since then has shown that brainstorming doesn’t really produce the great results people had envisioned.  In fact, when people are asked to brainstorm individually and then bring their best ideas to the group, the outcome is significantly superior. They produce twice as many ideas and have more novel ideas. So, what stops brainstorming from working well?

Adrian Furnham, a professor of Psychology at University College London, outlines three main problems that plague brainstorming:

  • Social Loafing: Social loafing occurs because people working in groups tend to exert less effort than when they are working alone. When people expect others to loaf, they reduce their own effort to make the division of labor more equitable.
  • Evaluation Apprehension: People can hold back their ideas and views when they are uncertain of how they will be perceived. Presence of superiors in the session increases evaluation apprehension in the rest.
  • Production Blocking: Production blocking occurs because in traditional brainstorming, only one person is allowed to speak at a time and the others have to wait. The waiting time can cause people to forget their idea (short-term memory limitation) or to consider it less original than the idea being considered.

So, how can you get better at generating ideas? Here are some approaches that work better than traditional brainstorming:

  • Work Individually:  When people work individually and then bring their best ideas to the group for assessment, the outcome is superior to a group brainstorming session. As Adrian Furnham recommends, “If  you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.
  • Brainwriting: Shelly Carson, a psychologist at Harvard, suggests using Brainwriting. In brainwriting, participants are use index cards to jot down a few ideas and then pass their cards to the next participant who then uses them as triggers for more ideas.
  • Electronic Brainstorming: Electronic techniques are increasingly being used to help overcome the problems of social loafing, evaluation apprehension and production blocking. In typical electronic brainstorming, participants type their ideas anonymously and ideas from all group members are pooled and displayed to everyone.

In our case, I discovered that evaluation apprehension was limiting the number of ideas our group was generating. What eventually worked for us was “working individually” – each team member would think about a specific part of the challenge and bring his or her ideas to the next meeting to share with the rest of the group. We found that not only did we have more ideas, we also had better ideas because people had time to refine and improve their initial thoughts. So, the next time you find yourself brainstorming, try one of these tweaks and see if it works better.