Does Collaboration Kill Creativity?

September 27, 2016

It's common knowledge that two heads are better than one, teams are more productive than individuals, and brainstorming sessions are more successful when there are more brains doing the storming. Or are they?

According to research by MIT’s Mark Klein and colleagues, collaboration may be a creativity killer.
They've found that a collaborative design process—where a bunch of specialists put their heads together to try to come up with innovation solutions—generally "reduced creativity due to the tendency to incrementally modify known successful designs rather than explore radically different and potentially superior ones."
That’s funny. Because collaboration has been billing itself as the font of workplace creativity for decades. What if the opposite were true? Incidentally, groupthink is also characterized by a loss of individual creativity. It may be that collaboration and groupthink are two sides of the same coin—kissing cousins at least—and we’ve collectively chosen (thank you, groupthink) to see only one side of that coin for years.

Indeed, and research and evidence showing that the lone creator may be superior to a group of creators is nothing new. It's been around for years. While the above comes from a piece published by Fast Company this week, the following comes from a Dallas Morning News article a few years ago written by Susan Cain, a TED Talker and the author of a new young adult book called Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introvertsas well as a 2013 book for adults called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.

Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but they see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.
One explanation for these findings is that introverts are comfortable working alone—and solitude is a catalyst to innovation. As influential psychologist Hans Eysenck observed, introversion fosters creativity by “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.” In other words, a person sitting quietly under a tree in the back yard, while everyone else is clinking glasses on the patio, is more likely to have an apple land on his head. (Newton was one of the world’s great introverts: William Wordsworth described him as “A mind for ever/ Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.”)
Solitude has long been associated with creativity and transcendence. “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible,” Picasso said.

Back when the above was written, collaboration was king, as was the open-office plan, which, just like collaboration, was thought to spur creativity and increase productivity and thus boost the bottom line. However …

That was in 2012, and what was "in" then may not exactly be "out," but it's showing signs of wear. A growing body of academic research and the popular press have begun to point toward collaboration’s costs and limits. In one study last year, high-performing individuals were shown to carry their teams—managers actually got higher returns by investing in their top employees than by trying to motivate and support everyone equally.
Meanwhile, collaboration doesn't seem to have solved our intractable productivity needs, risks of burnout, and communication breakdowns. Even the technologies designed to make collaborating easier and more seamless are coming under fire by some users who claim they do nothing but add to the noise.

Um, Slack, anyone?

Still, despite the evidence, collaboration isn't going to disappear anytime soon. And it shouldn't. The so-called comprehensivists, who are employees that can do many things well, such as create content, design that content, and build the technology that houses that designed and created content, aren't going to be easy to come by, and they aren't going to be the answer to all of employers' problems. But at the same time, companies, in order to survive and thrive, will not be able to deny their effectiveness.

While comprehensivists are likely a reaction to the creeping curse of collaboration, it doesn’t mean they yearn for total solitude and self-reliance; certainly, asking everybody to be good at everything and do it by themselves is no solution. You can't just employ only multidisciplinary "unicorns" and fire the rest of your staff. The answer more likely lies somewhere in the middle—and it starts not only with knowing when not to collaborate but also when to resist the urge to go solo.
by Derek Loosvelt 
sculpture in front of the Thompson Center
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