The New Groupthink: A Case Against the Call for Collaboration for the Sake of Creativity

Introverts like myself heave a huge sigh of relief upon reading Susan Cain’s new book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. In the chapter titled, “When Collaboration Kills Creativity,” Cain explains the origins of this recent, increased call for in-office collaboration and presents compelling research studies that run counter to the assumptions and reasons behind the move towards the open office plan and the usually, taken for granted requirement for employees to work collaboratively in teams. Yes, I’ve always loathed projects that required teamwork in school and, although I can’t speak for everyone, I’ll say that I’ve always come up with creative ideas on my own while group brainstorming always inhibited idea generation.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts

On the origins of “The New Groupthink,” Cain writes:

Cooperative learning, corporate teamwork, and open office plans emerged at different times and for different reasons. But the mighty force that pulled these trends together was the rise of the World Wide Web, which lent both cool and gravitas to the idea of collaboration (p. 78).

The Internet’s role in promoting face-to-face group work is especially ironic because the early Web was a medium that enabled bands of often introverted individualists — people much like the solitude-craving thought leaders Farrall and Kronborg describe — to come together to subvert and transcend the usual ways of problem-solving (p. 79).

If you had gathered the same people who created Linux, installed them in a giant conference room for a year, and asked them to devise a new operating system, it’s doubtful that anything so revolutionary would have occurred… (p. 80).

Moreover, Cain explains how collaboration and crowd-sourcing produce different results under different conditions (online vs. face-to-face). E-mail, instant messaging, and online chat tools are, by the way, considered passive forms of collaboration.

The one exception to this is online brainstorming. Groups brainstorming electronically, when properly managed, not only do better than individuals, research shows; the larger the group, the better it performs. The same is true of academic research — professors who work together electronically, from different physical locations, tend to produce research that is more influential than those either working alone or collaborating face-to-face… But we’re so impressed by the power of online collaboration that we’ve come to overvalue all group work at the expense of solo thought. We fail to realize that participating in an online working group is a form of solitude all its own. Instead we assume that the success of online collaborations will be replicated in the face-to-face world (p. 88).

Furthermore, she cites explanations given by psychologists for the failure of group brainstorming:

The first is social loafing: in a group, some individuals tend to sit back and let others do the work. The second is production blocking: only one person can talk or produce an idea at once, while the other group members are forced to sit passively. And the third is evaluation apprehension, meaning the fear of looking stupid in front of one’s peers (p. 89).

On the subject of some traits and characteristics of top performers and the conditions under which they make creative contributions, Cain writes:

… top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption… [Open-plan workers are] often subject to loud and uncontrollable noise, which raises heart rates; releases cortisol,… and makes people socially distant, quick to anger, aggressive, and slow to help others (p. 84).

Many introverts seem to know these things instinctively, and resist being herded together… [Mike Mika, the former creative director of Backbone Entertainment stated,] “We switched over to cubicles and were worried about it — you’d think in a creative environment that people would hate that. But it turns out they prefer having nooks and crannies they can hide away in and just be away from everybody” (p. 85).

Well, there you go folks! Outlined above are some examples and serious counter-arguments to consider, and there is no better time to consider them than now. At the time of this writing, both Yahoo! and Best Buy have reversed course on their flexible work policy. I don’t know whether these changes are meant to be temporary or permanent, however it is my hope that all those who are weighing the pros and cons of flexible work policies will, in due diligence, consider all the facts. Susan Cain sums it up nicely by stating, “If personal space is vital to creativity, so is freedom from ‘peer pressure’” (p. 86).

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