Friday, May 18, 2012

Creativity, Teamwork, and the Design of Workspaces: Insights from Susan Cain’s “Quiet”

One question that keeps cropping up in innovation discussions is the role of the individual vs. that of the team. On the one hand, individual creative geniuses seem to be critical to the ideation that is the spark for significant innovations. On the other, given the complexity of most impactful innovations, it’s hard to imagine a single individual pulling it off. But, even if a few individuals have a disproportionate influence on innovation outcomes, the environment in which they work will influence their creative output.

Susan Cain adds an interesting dimension to this debate in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that can’t Stop Talking (Crown Publishers, 2012). She points out that many of the most creative people are introverts by nature, and that introverts’ ability to work independently can fuel the creativity required for effective innovation. She goes on to criticize the tendency to elevate teamwork to an inviolable mantra and to force people to work in teams, citing examples of people like Charles Darwin and Madam Curie, introverts who broke new ground in their respective fields.
Susan Cain is particularly critical of the wide scale adoption of open plan offices for their possible negative impact on creativity and innovation. If you read Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers, you will recall that outstanding performers have often put in as much as 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to reach the pinnacle of their respective fields. Cain points out that this deliberate practice is often effective only when done in solitude, and the open plan office can often make the environment too disruptive for the intense concentration required for impactful innovation. In fact, Cain cites research by DeMarco and Lister that shows that “top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their environments, and freedom from interruption” (p. 84).
Cain questions some of the notions we take for granted in innovation management. For instance, she doubts the utility of conventional brainstorming sessions, pointing to research that people generate better ideas on their own rather than in a group setting. Brainstorming may help by the social connections it creates through bringing people together, not by generating better ideas! In spite of the precautions taken during brainstorming to separate ideation from evaluation, Cain suggests that “evaluation apprehension” prevents people from voicing their ideas. [Interestingly, she argues that online brainstorming can be free of this problem.] Concluding this section of her book, Cain calls for systematic efforts to encourage individual and independent thinking in education, and for organizations to provide greater flexibility in work layouts so that creative people can have the quiet they need, when they need it.

1 comment:

  1. Cain's conclusion is perfectly reasonable. A workplace must provide environment that helps different personality types to be creative.
    Yet, I think her arguments are too polarised.
    To begin I would like clarify creativity vs. innovation. Creativity is about generating new and unobvious ideas. Innovation is about generating winning products and services. Creativity is essentially individual activity; innovation is a group sport. The key question then is – are introvert creative geniuses at a disadvantage in the modern workplace?
    I would not separate the debate between introverts and extroverts. It is important for businesses to identify creative geniuses (of all kinds) and provide environment that fosters their creativity. It could mean private offices, studios or whatever it takes. If individual creative geniuses need a closed office, give them.
    In fact, many companies do that. For example, exceptionally brilliant scientists and engineers at IBM and Microsoft rise to run their own fiefdoms with lavish budget and infinite freedom. These folks have demonstrated their genius consistently over 10-15 years. There work environment is akin to academic research setup at a top university. More generally, businesses are creating office designs that foster creativity and innovation e.g., Google and several of its imitators.
    The question to ask is - if open office spaces kill creativity? There is no evidence to suggest that. On the contrary, open spaces promote creativity thru collaboration. Simply creating ideas and insights is not enough. These ideas need to be sold to other people in the organizations who as a team will convert it into winning innovation. Yes, innovation is a multi-disciplinary collaborative sport. Another truth about winning innovation is they result from intersection of several other ideas from several other fields. Open spaces facilitate collaboration. Diverse teams are more likely to hit upon winning combination. In reality, offices today are combination of all kinds of spaces some closed, other open and yet some out in the open outside the building.
    Cain’s arguments raise another question – does group brainstorming kill individual creativity? Should group brainstorming be banished from ideation process? There are couple of arguments here – 1. Individual creativity is happening outside a group brainstorm. Creative folks are constantly observing, discovering, and asking powerful questions. 2) Group brainstorming is necessary to bring diverse ideas on the white board. Diverse ideas are lifeblood of innovation. The need is for a good brainstorm process that helps introverts ideas being heard at noisy brainstorms. An online brainstorm could eliminate personalities issues to some extent e.g., using a Delphi method, that affords some amount of anonymity. In the final analysis, simply having a great idea is not enough. Ideas must be sold, combined, and developed with others to become a meaningful innovation.
    Reference to Gladwell’s and other research too needs a mention here. The question is – are top performers also top innovators? Does 10,000 hours of practice makes one more creative? I am not too sure.