Wanna Improve Creativity? Work Together, Then Alone

A new academic study with a Harvard Business School pedigree finds that mixing collaborative and isolated creative approaches helps improve consistency while maximizing the potential for something great.

When a project needs to get done, perhaps your instinct is to call a meeting to get stakeholders working together. Or maybe you just want to hole up in your office.

How about both? According to a new study from researchers at three Boston-area universities, you might want to try a variety of strategies when it comes to solving the big problems.

In “How Intermittent Breaks in Interaction Improve Collective Intelligence,” a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers—Harvard Business School associate professor Ethan Bernstein, Boston University business professor Jesse Shore, and Northeastern University professor David Lazer—analyzed a series of three-person groups that conducted a deep-dive into a complex task that required problem-solving skills, judging the results based on their creativity.

The groups varied in their tactics: One worked closely together on the task, a second group worked together occasionally, and a third worked in complete isolation.

The authors anticipated that the group that worked in isolation would come up with the most creative individual solutions, but the solutions wouldn’t be as consistent overall; the authors also expected that those who largely worked together in groups would produce more consistently good solutions, but that the solutions wouldn’t reach greatness. Their research matched existing findings on this front.

But what was new was the finding that mixing isolation and collaboration offered the best of both worlds; the results tended to be more consistent, but faced better odds of going above and beyond.

“Intermittent breaks in interaction improve collective intelligence,” the report states. “Being exposed to diverse answers boosts performance, even if the answers one sees are worse than one’s own.”

Commenting on the research in a news release, Harvard’s Bernstein suggests that the lessons on creativity apply not just to working alone and working together, but also highlight how constant notifications on smart devices can take away some of that isolation.

“As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well,” he stated.

The researchers add that some models worth researching in improving your own creative process include hackathons, which often mix interaction and isolation, and the approach of the design and consulting firm IDEO.

By / for Associations Now, a publication of the American Society of Association Executives.

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