In a piece in yesterday’s New York Times, The Rise of the New Groupthink, Susan Cain makes a strong argument against the rising tide of groupthink in our culture. This kind of “collaborative creativity” can readily be seen in the proliferation of group assignments in school, companies with open plan offices with no personal space, and, in the naming business, naming committees with too many members trying to collaboratively create a new brand name.
The problem is, for any kind of creative endeavor, groupthink doesn’t work.
Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.
One explanation for these findings is that introverts are comfortable working alone — and solitude is a catalyst to innovation. As the influential psychologist Hans Eysenck observed, introversion fosters creativity by “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.”
In other words, the social aspects of work might be beneficial and necessary to an individual’s overall health, but they are not conducive to creative work and the development of new ideas. And “creative work” is something that should be required of everyone in an organization, not just so-called “creatives.” Here is Apple co-founder and famous introvert Steve Wozniak describing engineers:
“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”
The key for any company or organization is to find the right balance, to recognize that people need uninterrupted “alone time” to do their best work, thought they and others in the organization can benefit from the collective energy of occasional group interaction. Interaction and exchange of ideas, not continuous collaboration, because,
…it’s one thing to associate with a group in which each member works autonomously on his piece of the puzzle; it’s another to be corralled into endless meetings or conference calls conducted in offices that afford no respite from the noise and gaze of co-workers. Studies show that open-plan offices make workers hostile, insecure and distracted. They’re also more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, stress, the flu and exhaustion. And people whose work is interrupted make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish it.
Privacy also makes us productive, notes Cain. She references a study of 600 computer programmers at 92 companies called the Coding War Games that showed quantitatively that “what distinguished programmers at the top-performing companies wasn’t greater experience or better pay, it was how much privacy, personal workspace and freedom from interruption they enjoyed.” And creative solitude helps learning too, because an individual can work more on the things that challenge them, which is not an option in a group learning situation.
The flip side of deep, focused, solitary work is the corporate brainstorming session. We’ve seen this time and again in the naming industry, where brainstorming sessions are usually conducted by companies in-house, or by their advertising agency. The company or agency will ask a group of its “creatives” to work late one night, fueled by pizza, beer and Red Bull, and work together to brainstorm a new name. As you may have guessed, such a process rarely if ever generates the strongest, most powerful names.
Conversely, brainstorming sessions are one of the worst possible ways to stimulate creativity….decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases. The “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” wrote the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”
The reasons brainstorming fails are instructive for other forms of group work, too. People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure. The Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that when we take a stance different from the group’s, we activate the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection. Professor Berns calls this “the pain of independence.”
Simon Sinek has also weighed-in on why the best ideas don’t happen though groupthink, pointing out that brainstorming sessions only activate the conscious mind, not the subconscious mind. He notes that your rational brain can only access about two feet of information around you, while your unconscious brain can access the equivalent of eleven acres of information around you. This treasure trove of unconscious information is where gut decisions and epiphanies come from, and they just can’t come out in the collective groupthink environment of a brainstorming session.
The only way to make brainstorming productive is to have individuals work alone on the problem at hand before and after the group work, and use the brainstorming session for communication, interaction and amplification of the individual ideas, rather than a mechanism for creating those ideas. There simply is no substitute for the deep thought of individual alone time away from all distractions.
One exception to the general shortcomings of groupthink is electronic collaboration at a distance, or so-called “crowdsourcing,” where individuals working “alone together” have the potential to tap into the best of both worlds. In the rosiest of such scenarios, individuals still have plenty of solitary creative time, which is then combined with focused bursts of remote group collaboration free from the negative dynamics that come with in-person group interaction. Cain notes that, “most humans have two contradictory impulses: we love and need one another, yet we crave privacy and autonomy,” and finding the right balance is crucial for success:
To harness the energy that fuels both these drives, we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning. Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone. Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time. And we must recognize that introverts like Steve Wozniak need extra quiet and privacy to do their best work.
Companies should take heed of these findings and incorporate them into how they structure their workflow and work environments. In our own naming work we have always worked this way, as individuals pursuing ideas on our own, punctuated by regular, brief and focused sessions for discussion, argument, and collaboration, both internally and with our clients; then back to our private spaces for more deep thought.
If your company is staffed only with extroverts, it’s time to hire some introverts, pronto, and give them the space they need to go deep. The extroverts will benefit too.