Bright Ideas: The Creative Power of Groups

by Laurie Joan Aron

The camel has long been the punch line of the riddle, "Name the animal designed by a committee." But taking a closer look at the features that allow this oddly shaped creature to survive in harsh desert conditions, one can draw a much kinder conclusion about the power of groups to develop and execute truly creative solutions. Perhaps the traditional image of the creative genius working alone to create great breakthroughs is not so accurate after all.

To shatter conventional wisdom about group creativity is one purpose of When Sparks Fly: Igniting Creativity in Groups (Harvard Business School Press), a new book by HBS professor Dorothy Leonard and Professor Walter Swap of Tufts University. The authors not only disprove the stereotypical perception of group creativity as an oxymoron but show how the group creative process can be successfully managed to allow new ideas to come to fruition.

The typical pitfalls encountered in group decision-making are all too familiar. Who hasn't witnessed, for instance, the silence around a conference table as meeting participants turn suddenly speechless, unable to generate novel suggestions? Another common scenario finds intelligent individuals willingly succumbing to "group think," waving through a lukewarm idea rather than disrupting the comfort of the status quo.

"Questioning long-held beliefs and traditional ways of doing things is a painful but necessary step if group creativity is to be ignited," Leonard and Swap assert. To begin with, the creative process in an organization can and must encompass a broad array of input from a wide variety of people, including those who may not consider themselves the least bit creative. "Many of the major inventions of the twentieth century — including the transistor — emanated from groups of people with complementary skills," say the authors. Furthermore, they argue, creativity doesn't have to come in visionary leaps. Incremental steps count, too, and figuring out how to implement a new idea may involve even more creativity than coming up with the original notion. Most important, they say, although creativity may seem most prevalent in places like Silicon Valley and Hollywood, it can be learned and managed in every kind of organization.

Of particular interest in Leonard and Swap's research, which examined both successful and unsuccessful attempts at group creativity in companies ranging from startups to Hewlett-Packard and Intel, is their recipe for firing up and stoking the creative process. Promoting differences of opinion, setting aside an incubation period, and converging on the best option are three crucial steps in their methodology.

The need to put together a diverse group, say Leonard and Swap, immediately challenges the assumptions of many managers, who tend to subconsciously select people like themselves in training and attitude. This "chorus of monotones" will get the group nowhere, they warn. Instead, managers have to select as heterogeneous a group as possible, representing different experiences, thinking styles, cultures, and attitudes.

Sometimes, groups get a boost from the addition of customers or professionals from outside the company who can add a totally fresh perspective on a problem. Xerox engineers, for example, brought in anthropologists to help them design copiers that were more user-friendly. And Genzyme leavened the impact of the lawyers on its regulatory team with a sprinkling of scientists and liberal arts graduates. The result was an innovative approach for speeding a key product to market through a thicket of government regulations.

Beyond diversity, note the authors, the group also has to be encouraged to develop several creative options to a problem that has been clearly framed by a leader who has carefully avoided indicating a preference for any particular approach. "The best creative environment is a safe one in which participants can freely express their opinions," according to Leonard and Swap. "Dissent must be tolerated and protected by the leader. In addition, a set of basic ground rules has to be agreed upon and even posted around the room, so that group members feel free to range widely within these parameters. Some successful groups even appoint a devil's advocate to keep challenging others' assumptions and prevent the formation of consensus too early."

Theatrics can also come into play to stimulate creative group dynamics. A number of companies have participants role-play to gain a better sense of others' points of view or to sense how consumers would actually use new products. When Interval Research Corp. wanted its young designers to understand the physical limitations of the senior citizens for whom it was designing electronic equipment, the company had all the Generation Xers in a brainstorming group don gloves to make them more aware of the effects of reduced dexterity.

After a collection of new ideas has been laid out on the table, the desire to choose just one and run with it can be overwhelming. But that's the very moment, say Leonard and Swap, to wait, step back, and mull things over — or as they put it, "incubate." "A group that is hotly pursuing a tempting solution may need to be interrupted mid-gallop in order to pause for incubation," they write. "The invisible fermentation that occurs when group members reflect seems integral to the creative process." Sometimes, literally sleeping on an idea —perhaps dreaming about it — is enough to provide the necessary perspective and get a group moving from divergence to convergence. Something as simple as a movie break, they say, can be helpful — an approach that did wonders for a group at Nissan Design International when it was in the final throes of plans for the automaker's Pathfinder sport utility vehicle.

No matter what form the incubation period takes, the group eventually has to come to some sort of consensus within the constraints of its and the company's mission and values. Leonard and Swap identify several ways to facilitate this task. Working with a physical prototype of a new product, they suggest, provides a tangible focus. In addition, identifying the organization's core competences and examining how they're likely to stand up against social, economic, and technological changes can help a group home in on the final stages of developing a new idea.

Leonard and Swap's book is a challenge to business leaders to go forth and maximize the creative potential in their firms. "None of us has much choice about becoming more creative," they declare. "The problems faced by society are so large that only innovativeness of the highest order will overcome them. But it takes only a small spark to ignite a large fire."