Creativity: a collaborative group effort or the result of a solitary struggle of individuals?

“We need great ideas!” – says the top management! That’s the simple goal of innovation often given as a guideline to the innovation manager of the company. The innovation manager then has the task to find good ways of stimulation idea creation. How can you do it? Read the following paragraphs to find out more!

Everybody knows (or assumes) that good ideas are based on creative work by a team mixed with well-educated professionals, and experienced staff from different disciplines. This could consist of the prolific sales guy, the “I’ve seen it all”-engineer and the strategic thinking business development manager. Every so often, it’s good to add someone who gives fresh input from out of the box. In German, there is the nice word “Querdenker” for such a person – a “cross thinker” who can take things into a different perspective. He or she adds new aspects, questions old rules which are taken as a premise, adds fresh ideas, and asks many “dumb questions” stirring the discussion and the creative process.

So let’s add all these guys together, put them into a room, add a few creativity methods and a discussion moderator. Let them brainstorm and discuss in the workshop – and out come many good ideas, right? You might even add some outsiders (customers, researchers, etc.) and call it “lead user workshop”. But how successful will this be to really create good ideas?

Let’s look at another perspective: Some people think that collaboration for creating new ideas is overstated. For instance, in an article in the New York Times, Susan Cain makes the point that “people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.”  She cites a study by psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist and adds “the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted”. Isaac Newton and Steve Wozniak are presented as examples. Check out the article, a well written piece which combines the mentioned research results with historical evidence and a lot of common sense.

So does that mean brainstorming sessions and innovation workshops are useless? Should we all shut our doors, spend hours in confinement while seeking a genius solution to our current problem?

Practical experience from an industrial company

Let’s have a look at reality and practical application and some observations from my work as an innovation practitioner in the last few years: From my experience, the search for good new ideas should always start with a well-defined problem and a good innovation team to find and elaborate on ideas: see above!

In the literature and the lectures at university, the problems one might deal with are often colorful topics, which are fun to work on. Unfortunately, in a practical setting, the situation is often different and much less exciting. There is a current problem bothering the company, which is hard to tackle and a solution is urgently needed.  The question might be something very specific such as “How could a cleaning device be built to pre-clean parts before coating them?” with a long lists of technical conditions coming along. And yes, the competitors have found good solutions before you, there are a couple patents around blocking some approaches, there might a special technical competency missing in the team, and after all, you don’t have much money available for the required R&D activities. That’s all “very motivating” to begin with.

Anyway, the conventional way in many industrial companies to tackle this problem would be to assemble a team, give them a short advance note (such as a phone call or an email) and then get them together an innovation workshop. The team you have assembled has agreed to work on this for a day, and you send them some material to prepare themselves (the problem, some background, the customer requirements, what has been done in the past, etc.). Everybody gets together, but many didn’t have time to prepare themselves for the event. The discussion is structured and some creativity methods are used to support the process.  Fair enough! In addition to that, I would recommend to use these elements:

  • Present some basic insights on how your customers solve the problem now, and what the competitors offer.
  • Look at the basic principles of the problem (why do we need a clean part? How does cleaning work in general?) and question existing approaches to look at the broader picture (we might not have to clean, if there’s no dirt around in the first place).
  • Look at basic technical solution principles for the problem – no matter if it was applied in your industry sector yet.
  • Bring in some market and technology trends to “spice up” the discussion.
  • Create a positive atmosphere and assure a constructive discussion: Try to soothe participants who are discussing too aggressively and make sure everybody can contribute.

These elements do help to make the idea workshop productive – which means you can get a lot of ideas, of which some should be good – and new.

Individual creativity to support group creativity

Now, with what we have learned from the mentioned research from psychology, I would add the following recommendations:

Take the time to prepare the participants personally in one-on-one meetings on the objective of the workshop and about the problem that has to be addressed. Try to get them to work on the problem individually for at least a couple hours before everybody gets together.

Let’s face it: You can sure motivate people to look for “everything that makes our products better” in an idea workshop. But without good preparation of the participants, you’re going to get a lot of ideas missing the point. The people bringing in these ideas have a reason why they think their ideas are important, and should be given a thoughtful feedback (which should contribute to their motivation). But honestly, this needs some of your time and effort, which can be better spent. So do your homework and invest some time to prepare the workshop well and make sure participants will do the same.

Claus Lang-Koetz

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