Igniting the creative spark in organizations

Tags: talent management

Firms that focus on individual employee achievement and uniqueness are more conducive to generating innovative ideas than companies that emphasize a team-based culture, according to Barry Staw, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

Surprisingly, even when groups who emphasize teamwork are instructed to be creative, they generate fewer ideas and less creative ideas than groups who are more focused on independent viewpoints, Staw concluded after conducting a study with 204 university students. Staw and co-author Jack Goncalo of Cornell University outlined their findings in an article titled “Individualism-Collectivism and Group Creativity,” published in the May issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

“The message of this article is that diversity of ideas and perspectives is crucial for innovation,” says Staw, who has been studying creativity for 15 years.

Staw and Goncalo’s findings are the latest rally in a fierce academic debate over how culture relates to innovation. Other professors have argued that a strong and collectivistic culture – one that is more team-oriented and emphasizes organization-wide goals – may improve creativity when the firm has set widely accepted goals for innovation. They cite Hewlett-Packard and 3M as examples.

Staw, chairman of the Haas Organizational Behavior and Industrial Relations Group, disagrees.

“A strong corporate culture can be detrimental to innovation because everyone has to get on board and be relatively alike,” says Staw.

On the other hand, the advantages of an individualistic culture may be especially salient when innovation is an explicit goal, Staw and Goncalo hypothesize in their article. They define an individualistic culture as one that values uniqueness, encourages people to be independent from the group, and provides clear recognition for individual achievement.
To test this hypothesis, Staw and Goncalo conducted a one-hour experiment with teams of undergraduate students. First, participants completed a survey designed to prime a collectivistic or individualistic mind-set. Then each group was instructed to be either creative or practical as they spent 15 minutes generating as many ideas as possible about how to solve a problem.

The problem was figuring out a new business for a space vacated by a mismanaged and low-quality restaurant at a major West Coast University. In the final phase, each group was asked to select the idea that they believed was either the most creative or practical.

“On every measure, individualistic groups were more creative than collectivistic groups when instructed to be so – generating more ideas, presenting a greater number of ideas that depart from the pre-existing solution (i.e. restaurants), and posing ideas that were judged to be more novel,” the authors found. “The results simply show that, when creativity is explicitly desired, individualism will serve to facilitate such performance.”

Individualistic groups instructed to be more creative generated significantly more ideas (37.4 ideas on average) than collectivistic groups told to be creative (26.1 ideas on average). Collectivistic groups instructed to be creative generated significantly more restaurant ideas as a percentage of total ideas generated (14 percent) than individualistic groups (7 percent) given the same instructions to be creative.

And on a creativity scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most creative, ideas from individualistic groups instructed to be creative were more creative (with an average rating of 3.03) than those generated by collectivistic groups (with an average rating of 2.83).

The upshot of this research is that companies should protect individual perspectives, Staw says.

“Organizations try to hire people who fit with the culture, but organizations should instead look for people who are different,” he says. “Nurturing individualistic perspectives is better than having a corporate-wide direction.”

However, Staw notes that U.S. businesses have increasingly emphasized team projects and have long been interested in Asian business practices, which are known for their cooperative atmosphere.

“This study raises a red flag because the U.S. has had a very individualistic culture, but as we’re moving more toward team-based organizations, we risk losing some creativity,” he cautions.

Staw’s research on individualism vs. collectivism follows another article outlining the results of a study of 222 workers for up to a year to determine the effect of positive mood on creativity. In that article, Staw and co-authors Teresa Amabile of Harvard University, Sigal Barsade of University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer Mueller of New York University found that positive affect is a leading cause of creativity. The article, “Affect and Creativity at Work,” was published in the September 2005 issue of Administrative Science Quarterly.

About the Haas School of Business: For more than 100 years, the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley has offered a superb management education to outstanding men and women from around the world. The school is one of the world’s leading producers of new ideas and knowledge for all areas of business, and a launching point for many new businesses. For more information, visit http://www.haas.berkeley.edu/.

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