Does Collaboration Stifle Creativity?

The creativity myth

For decades, we have been exposed to the virtues of collaboration, cooperation, and coordination – or team work.

Scholars have built models to explain team performance and team effectiveness.

Organizations spend millions to get to the notion of the “ideal team.”

The foundational concept in team work is synergy – the idea of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

How real is this notion?

New research (Campbell et al.; Hot shots and cool reception? An expanded view of social consequences for high performers; Journal of Applied Psychology, 2017) suggests that collaboration may, in fact, stifle creativity by imposing social costs on high performers. The authors argue that cooperative contexts prove to be socially disadvantageous for high performers.

In other words, the innovators and hard workers may feel miserable and socially isolated in a typical team environment.

Social Isolation

A team has people who bring different skill sets to any situation. Empirical evidence suggests that mediocre employees, rather than rising to the challenge, in effect drag team performance downwards by isolating top performers, spreading nasty rumors, sabotaging the total effort, and even stealing credit for the high performers’ work.

Still Skeptical?

Here are the top reasons for high performers leaving organizations – from a study involving over 5,000 executives:

  1. Rapidly changing priorities – it is very tempting to catch on to the latest fad; the bolt from the blue; the “aha’ moment – the reality is that lasting progress requires loads of patience and perseverance. If you keep the goal post moving all the time, it is unlikely that anyone will score a worthwhile goal. The lesson that we can learn from organizations that consistently outperform their peers is to have clear short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals, and to avoid being distracted for any reason.
  2. Tolerance of mediocrity – while it is true that all employees cannot be high performers, one of the fatal sins of leadership is to condone mediocre performance. Sure, honest failure needs to be accepted, indeed encouraged, but when leaders don’t spot the difference between laxity and hard work, trouble cannot be far away. The “democratization” of incentive schemes is a flaw frequently reported in the literature. If high performers perceive that their efforts are in vain, they will walk away.
  3. The absence of fit between job and person – most organizations try to find people to fit into jobs. They would do well to identify critical jobs and identify the best person to perform the job. The analogy is that of having a custom-built sports car and using it as a golf cart. When high performers find they are being used to do something that practically anyone can, they are frustrated – and leave.
  4. Poor utilization of available talent – study after study indicate that organizations rarely use more than 50% of their potential. Imagine an organization chasing linear growth when the entire industry is moving exponentially. Can you realistically retain your best people?
  5. Nepotism – this invariably touches a raw nerve. Let us face it. We are humans. We are fallible. We have our likes and dislikes. Much as we might want to think otherwise, nepotism is hard to hide. High performers prefer organizations that are fair and square.

It appears that individual talent no longer counts for much. Susan Cain (Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking; Crown; 2012) calls this the New Groupthink – the notion that great ideas can be generated only in an exuberant, boisterous workplace where the loudest voices prevail. The rapid transformation of the workplace into “open office” plans with little or no privacy is a telling example of this concept of “collaboration.” Thank you, star performers, we don’t need you. We can do much better with ordinary folks collaborating all the time.

New Groupthink (Cain)

Step back for a minute. Think of some of the greatest ideas that have emanated through history and think of some of the most acclaimed people in any domain:

Start with Galileo and Copernicus and the Solar System.

Look at Euclid’s theorem.

Or Newton and Gravity.

Or Einstein and Relativity.

Or Edison and his inventions.

Or Picasso and Michaelangelo and their paintings.

Or Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin with their masterpieces.

Or think of the philosophers – from Sankara (who propounded non-dualism), Aristotle, Jesus, Buddha, Marx, Sartre, Russel, Descartes, Kant, Nietzche, Cicero, Dewey, or Johannson.

How large were their teams? Who were their collaborators?

I am not for a moment suggesting that each one of us could have done what the souls above gave to humanity. Nor am I suggesting that collaboration per se is harmful.

All that I am respectfully submitting is the virtues of collaboration are vastly overrated. Great insights often require solitude, not noise. We will seriously undermine the efficacy of collaboration if we choose to ignore or overlook the limitations inherent in groups.

The Virtues of Solitude

As I have written earlier, some of the great corporations of today have altogether abandoned the deeply ingrained models. Holacracy and Teal are the new paradigms. Jobs are no longer relevant. Roles are critical.

Beyond structure, we can make collaboration work by following a few simple rules:

  1. Brainwriting – a new concept which in simple terms is the written version of brainstorming. No member of a team can speak. Everyone writes ideas on post-it notes or another convenient medium. If you wish to eliminate bias, you can insist on printing – everyone uses the same font and size. Each idea is written on a separate note. All the notes go into a basket and then displayed in random order. People have time to study, understand and vote for the three top ideas. The idea that gets the most votes (and by default the greatest buy-in) gets the first shot. As an intermediate step, we can also have a window for developing on others’ ideas.
  2. Defining roles instead of jobs – a person may perform an activity related to marketing in the morning and accounting or finance or service activity in the afternoon. The transition can be during a day, a week, a month, or any convenient time frame.
  3. Air Cliché – list a few clichés (Bark up the wrong tree, Beggars can’t be choosers, Fish in troubled waters) and ask team members to write down possible ideas tied to a cliché that may solve the problem on hand. When complete, ask members to make paper airplanes and toss them to another team. Repeat till you have a consensus on the best course of action. Avoid hierarchy. The process is based on the premise that many of the best ideas come from a fun-filled, playful environment. (for more on this, please refer: James Rogers: The Dictionary of Clichés; Ballantine; 1985).

The next time you form a team, I do hope you can realize synergy.

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