A Relationship Story – Igniting the Creative Spark

A Relationship Story
Igniting the Creative Spark

Creativity is the fuel source for innovation and growth in successful businesses. It’s true for me in my McDermott & Bull retained search practice and it’s equally true for major enterprises like Ingram Micro, The Capital Group, and The Irvine Company. For all of us, unleashing success could be a function of unlocking creativity. So how does it work?

After doing some reading on this subject, I realized this could be a perfect opportunity to learn what our community thinks about igniting creativity. Recently I asked all of you:

“Think about creativity in organizations. Do you believe that creativity is better maximized in organizations through a culture that strongly encourages individuality or one that strongly encourages teaming?”

I received a staggering 575 responses, and I thank you all for that. The community response was a whopping 75% majority believing creativity is better fostered in organizations that emphasize teaming versus individuality.

Also, 10% of the people wouldn’t or couldn’t answer the question. Of course, it’s obvious the question was limiting and simplistic, but it wasn’t a trick question. You see, during my reading on this subject I had a hunch about what most business people might believe about this. Yes, in fact, the experts disagree with our majority. I thought it might be fascinating to juxtapose the prevailing perceptions against the empirical evidence. Here’s what I learned:

First, my friend Bertha Masuda, Founder and Principal of the Compensation Solutions Consulting firm Vivient Consulting, had shared an article with me called “Igniting the Creative Spark” by Professor Barry Staw from the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business.

Staw’s 15 years of research on creativity contended that, by every measure, groups that encourage individualism proved more creative than groups emphasizing teaming, and the advantages of an individualistic culture are especially important when innovation is the explicit goal. Now don’t think I’m suggesting there is no value in teaming, just stay with me here…

Soon after reading this article I read a fascinating book called The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. It describes how the solutions derived from the collective wisdom of the crowd are always better than the solution of even the most prestigious expert. However – and here is the most compelling learning – the members of the crowd must be sufficiently independent to allow their individual creativity to combine into a “perfect” answer. Answers from teams that lacked member independence proved ineffective.

Surowiecki suggested that issues such as peer pressure and “groupthink” can significantly stifle the expression of individual creativity in a team setting.

An example of valuing the individual can be found in one of our most iconic modern institutions – Google (a McDermott & Bull client, by the way). The bright Googlers get to spend 20% of their time free to pursue projects of their choice, and many of Google’s best ideas have been generated as a function of this unique practice.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that 75% of us are wrong. Teaming is highly valued by all of us. No one would question that great ideas are fueled by people working together. However, a zeal for teaming as a panacea for every approach and solution may dilute the extraordinary power of individual creativity in organizations. So test the experts! Here’s an idea you could try with your teams:

For your next brainstorming, instead of people attending without thinking in advance, try asking them to work on ideas individually. Even consider asking them to send ideas in anonymously, especially if people might be unwilling to share their thoughts in a group. Just imagine the power of a brainstorming if you really had all the ideas instead of just the ones people will blurt out in a meeting. If the experts are right at all, maybe the team’s true potential might be realized.

Thank you for sharing time with me. I welcome your thoughts and comments. I would be pleased to serve as a speaker for your companies or groups on subjects pertaining to acquiring and keeping the best talent, and of course, please let me know if I can assist with the talent acquisition needs of your company or others you know. Thank you.

Links and References:

Bertha Masuda – Vivient Consulting

Article Reference: “Individualism-Collectivism and Group Creativity” by Barry Staw and Jack Goncalo, published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, May 2006.

Book Recommendation: The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.


Jeff Black
Principal Consultant, McDermott & Bull Executive Search
Cell: (714) 356-1949 Office: (949) 753-1700 ext. 310
2 Venture, Suite 100 Irvine, CA 92618

1 Response

  1. James Surowiecki wrote “Why the Many Are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations” back in 2004. The book reinforced the now ubiquitous term called the “wisdom of crowds”. Used by academics and marketing gurus alike, the cliché tells us to listen to the needs, or better said, the rants of the crowd rather than the reason of a single member of a group.

    Crowds can be great at determining a consensus view where the right wing cancels out the left wing and we are left with the middle ground occupied by the statistical mean, or the “silent majority” as former US President Nixon called it. In politics and other venues this type of group thinking can be powerful and correct.

    Surowiecki actually argued that crowds are often wrong, but that message seems to have been lost on most readers (remember the average North American buys only one book a year and seldom finishes it). He suggests that crowds can get it wrong by listening to gossip or innuendo, instead of objectively looking at the facts. Sometimes a pretty face or a charismatic leader can sway the crowd and lead them to a disastrous conclusion such as riots, Nazi Germany, and conclusions from market research studies (OK, I guess you saw that one coming).

    Crowds and market research sample groups are wrong for the same reasons:
    – They are too much alike and lack the diversity of the population; the sample was not random or representative.
    – There is regional bias such as only doing focus groups in Manhattan; the people in Chicago and LA may feel very differently than the folks in the Big Apple.
    – The respondents don’t tell the truth; instead they say what they think the researcher wants to hear.
    – Respondents can be like sheep in that they follow the flock; they can be heavily influenced by others. They read it in People Magazine so it has to be true.
    – Focus group participants can be overpowered by a biased moderator (they are not supposed to be biased of course).
    – Their decisions are selfish or fear based rather than what is good for the group. They are not like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock who said “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one”.

    So, when doing market research, pick the crowd carefully to insure that it is representative of the total population. Ask the questions without bias or influence. Probe deeply to understand why people answer as they do. Avoid biases in the sample.

    Listen to the crowd, but beware of the mob.

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