If reading Malcolm Gladwell books has taught me anything, it’s that you have to challenge assumptions to move forward. That goes double for the most deeply held. It’s not easy to sit around questioning everything as he does (he makes a pretty good living doing it). Most of us just go along with the flow because we gotta get stuff done, and we don’t have time to do research and become an outlier.

Sometimes, however, a piece of research will come out that will challenge everything if we let it. As everyone knows, it takes a long time for such data to permeate the social infrastructure. Lately, some new evidence has been challenging some of the most deeply held assumptions in the world of business and especially the world of creatives.

Divided Attentions

Letting people know you’re good in a team is de rigueur for acquiring and maintaining a job these days, though what that actually means is left somewhat nebulous. In its most base form, it seems to mean being able to follow orders and cooperate without strangling anyone in a workplace setting. Many teams are created ad hoc based on availability with little thought given to inter-team dynamics and individual temperament.

Despite the image of the American pioneer proudly striking out on his or her own, we value teamwork without questioning or testing whether or not it’s always the better way to get the best and most creative solutions, or how to arrange them to such a goal. Recent research at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute has demonstrated a measurable drop in IQ among people working in meetings and teams. To summarize the findings, the time the brain spends devoting to ensuring proper social decorum in a group is brainpower it’s not spending looking for a good solution. It diffuses focus instead of concentrating it for a good deal of people. Most of us would rather fit in than stir the pot.

Anyone paying attention to politics—from the Bay of Pigs or the WMDs fiasco in Iraq—knows that groupthink can lead to some almost laughably wrong ideas that become apparent only in retrospect. There are several tenets that lead to groupthink decisions, and yet we seem strangley unaware of their occurrence in the most casual of teams. The argumentative theory of reasoning demonstrates that our minds are lawyers, not scientists. The mind takes a case then finds facts to support it, the very inverse of the scientific method. This is how a seemingly good idea that is actually erronenous can latch into not one but millions of minds in the same fashion as Dawkin’s memes (derived from a Greek word meaning “to imitate”) and remain long after a better idea has been discovered or the original idea disproven. Just look at the fiasco concerning vaccinations for children and its fictitious correlation to autism for a prime example.

Because I said so (Because I said so!)

Another blow to teamwork’s supposed powers is revealed by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which demonstrates that repetition alone can make an idea attractive, even if that idea is manifestly wrong. The study accredits the power of memory in this effect. I would posit that it also has something to do with a desire for didactic resolution. When an answer is reached, even the wrong one, our power-saving minds want to just let it be the one rather than expend additional energy pursuing every rabbit down every hole. This is especially true when the solution comes from someone higher up on the totem pole or just perceived as more intelligent than ourselves or we don’t have a vested interested in the solution’s success.

Only 34% productivity. But at least we saved money on walls! 

Most offices in the creative world are laid out with an open-office plan to encourage group interaction, and even this has recently been demonstrated to hamper creativity because our minds are always processing the information around us even if we aren’t consciously aware of it. This leads to a staggering, almost unbelievable, 66% drop in productivity. Like a mind in a meeting that’s devoting energy to social placement and interaction, a mind in an open office is processing all the phone calls, the whistling, the chit chat of nearby workers, and that’s all brainpower not being spent on the problem in front of it. Most of us have heard of the old idea that it takes about 15 minutes to get back into a ‘groove’ of working if we’re distracted, but what if that distraction is a constant, low hum of the open office space? The author of the study recommends headphones playing birdsongs as white noise. Birdsongs have a natural calming affect on the human psyche, reminding our yet primitive minds that if the birds are singing, everything must be copacetic—no sabertooths roam the office. Whew!

Team Brainstorming: The criticism that dare not speak its name.

We often forget to question the wisdom or source of an idea to ensure that it is actually sage and reliable. This is perhaps no more true than with the idea of group brainstorming for the most creative answers. Like an old adage whose meaning has been lost, we just apply it unthinkingly and everyone accepts it without digging deeper. What if it turned out that brainstorming didn’t work? That people work better with criticism than in the free-for-all-no-ideas-left-unheard brainstorming sesh? Jonah Lehrer (yes, he’s been disgraced but I still think his article apt), author of the book Imagine: How Creativity Works, wrote a scathing article for the New Yorker criticizing brainstorming’s vaunted place in American business culture.

By looking back to the source of the idea, we see that this is an example of all the wrong things getting embedded in our culture because it was repeated by a successful author who was really one of the only ones talking. Since 1958 studies have again and again disproven brainstorming’s effectiveness. Creatives who can’t work well in a team or are weak in a brainstorming session typically are seen as less intelligent, lazy or loners, even if the data doesn’t support that.

One of the most pernicious aspects to be seen in group brainstorming was researched by University of Texas and Texas A&M University: the problem of cognitive fixation. In group brainstorming sessions, it’s the phenomenon of other people’s ideas latching into someone else’s mind to the point where they have difficulty coming up with their own.

So what’s to be done?

It’s good to remember that our current culture of creativity is not that old. We’re not entirely certain we’ve found all the best ways to maximize brainpower towards finding a solution in groups or alone. If that’s the goal, we should—nay must—be willing to hear ideas and viewpoints that vastly differ from our comfortable place falling in the line of conventional “wisdom.” Fear of change shouldn’t be that daunting—it’s not like the thing that’s being changed is a religion or a constitution.

Jason Fried, who co-founded one of my favorite companies (37signals) and created my favorite project management tool (Basecamp), spoke of a radical new approach to offices: don’t use them. Or at least, don’t use them as you’re probably using them now. Speaking of distractions, he makes a distinction between those that are voluntary (TV, IMs, emails, Facebook) and those that are involuntary (people stopping by your desk, meetings). He calls M&Ms (Managers & Meetings) the real problems and suggests canceling your next meeting. Right now. Just do away with it. In his view, the manager’s jobs exists just to interrupt people and ensure that work is getting done because bosses fear that if they can’t see you working you can’t get work done. One of his most interesting solutions to make an office more palatable is a “no talk” day. When no one’s being bothered, productivity vastly increases. How about passive communication models like email and instant messaging that can be ignored if desired? Watch his full discussion below:

These are the radical ideas we need if we’re finally going to break the shackles of 19th and 20th century thinking that has made the 21st century so disappointing in the realm of progress. When was the last time you heard of an innovator say, “The key to my success was doing what everyone else was doing.” Never. Teams and committees on the surface appear to mostly exist not to generate the best ideas but to diffuse responsibility in a world where individuality and personal excellence are seen as liabilities to be avoided instead of qualities to be nurtured. If the horse is a camel designed by a committee, as the old chestnut goes, why do we keep designing camels?

Many of the traditional notions regarding teamwork came into being with the best of intentions, but we must remember that they weren’t the end-all-be-all solution. As creatives, we should be at the forefront of revolutionary thinking in the world of business instead of aping models that worked for other companies but may not be optimal where non-linear thinking is important. The world of business should be following our lead, not vice versa.

In a recent HOW Magazine article entitled Fear: Friend or Foe, Jonathan Fields breaks down creative types into two fields: “White canvas” people who generate the ideas and those who refine, expand and produce on ideas (REPs). He suggests the following:

If you’re a creative who’s in charge of putting together teams, you want a balance of white canvas creators and REPs. A team consisting only of white canvas creators throws out big ideas and nothing ever happens. Conversely, a team of REPs waits for the ideas to come.

A working knowledge of how the human mind functions in teams and a willingness to try new approaches should be at the core of a creative workplace. Over a decade into the 21st century we still seem to be putting the approaches of the last 120 years on life support, taping up the seams where cracks appear and dismissing the advances of the last 20 years that could make work a place where Dilbert comics need no longer be taped to walls of cubes as a passive aggressive attempt at a social statement. If this sounds like the battle cry of the Millenials—of which I am one—you’d be right. I won’t even bother linking to all the dozens of articles on research about how we are changing the face of the workplace.

It’s worth nothing that same study on cognitive fixation mentioned above found group brainstorming is very useful if  deployed strategically based on the goal:

For example, if the goal is to come up with a bunch of unique ideas or solutions to problems, then the group should be split up so that individuals can come up with their own ideas and these ideas can later be combined with other members’ ideas. Instead, if the goal is to explore only a few ideas in depth, then group interaction should be encouraged since the study shows groups tend to go deeper into categories than individuals do.

I’ll have a grande skinny order of efficiency. Yes whip.

Not all is lost for the team’s watering hole, the office. Why do people seek out coffee shops and libraries to work? I know I find a sense of communal productivity helpful, as well as a space where I’m not distracted by the need to do the dishes. The Atlantic makes a point that restaurants and cafés provide “Just Enough Distraction” for the mind, and even reference Malcolm Gladwell (that guy gets around) in their anecdotal evidence of non-office workplaces as optimal spaces for productivity. What if we could make the office more like a café? If all the work gets done on the golf course, why aren’t we all on a golf course, or at least trying to figure out how to bring that mentality to the cubicle farm.

The most fascinating part of the article by Loher references Brian Uzzi, who believes the ideal place to look for a model of teamwork is to be found in the production of a Broadway musical. He has it down to a science. By studying hundreds of productions and those who worked on them, he charted connectivity between people and the teams they created and ranked it against the success or failure of the musicals they made. The variable, called Q, is optimum when it is between 2.4 and 2.6. This means the team had enough internal antagonism to push the boundaries and not too much agreement so as to squash innovation. A mix of old and new ideas was key. I’m tempted to wonder if someday in the future, creative teams will somehow be able to find their Q without the massive amount of work done by Uzzi. Sites like klout.com hint at this, but we’d need some way to find it quickly and reliably to create the kinds of teams that will be a force of nature. What once happened by happenstance could become standard.

And it made all the difference.

An old koan by the Zen Master Linji says, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Those are strong, shocking words and I love them. Of course the Master didn’t mean it literally, but he did want to reinforce the Buddha’s own admonishment to not found a religion around him (whoops). The path to enlightenment is not for the faint of heart, and we must be prepared to ruthlessly slay the perceived wisdom of those that have gone before us.

This is an exceptionally important As Knoll Workplace Research points out in their analysis of Five Trends that Are Dramatically Changing Work and the Workplace:

Organizations may currently enjoy being able to choose from a surplus of qualified workers, but in the coming years they will have to compete again for the best workers. Your organization will have to focus on compensation to keep valued employees, but you will also have to be more sensitive to the preferences of existing and potential employees—especially for what has been called “work flexibility,” the ability to choose how, when and where to work.

The key to success is to understand that people know best how, when and where to work. The best way to help them perform to their highest levels is to give them choices.

There’s no one surefire solution, but whatever forms they take they will have to take this idea of choice into consideration. No longer will workers be content in the template of their forefathers. I’ll be interested to see if fifty years from now a newfound path has become a paved freeway that people like me will have to rail against once again. I am cautiously hopeful that by then, we’ll have learned the cost of stasis is higher than the cost of evolution.


Additional reading

Trying to be creative in a ‘Dilbert’ world