Fernando Fischmann

Can Collaboration Kill Creativity? Five Surprising Insights on Innovation

15 February, 2018 / Articles

“Teamwork makes the dream work” is an all-too-familiar phrase that promotes the corporate brainstorming ideal through collaboration. Brainstorming was introduced to the eager world of business in 1953 by the legendary advertising executive Alex Osborn in his revolutionary book: Applied Imagination. He believed passionately that groups could potentially develop a higher quantity and quality of ideas than an individual alone.

Sadly, Osborne was catastrophically wrong. As Adrian Furnham puts it in the Business Strategy Review, “[The] evidence from science suggests that businesspeople must be insane to use brainstorming groups.”

Brainstorming Backlash

While Osborne was busy convincing the world that we were destined to think better together, a concept that I’ve blindly believed for years, scientists were finding that collaboration actually doesn’t work well to develop innovative ideas. Brainstorming in groups works well to build trust and establish yourself within a social matrix. However, studies have shown that unique idea generation suffers in group settings, particularly as the group size increases.

This confusing outcome is due primarily to three factors, according to Susan Cain in her book, Quiet. Brainstorming, or any collaborative activity, can be hijacked by:

  • Social Loafers: In any group, some individuals will just go along with the status quo and let others do the challenging work.
  • Production Blocking: Only one person can speak at a time, so one idea is proposed at a time while others listen. Often, the most prolific speakers are not the ones with the best ideas.
  • Evaluation Apprehension: This springs from the fear of being judged by others. It has often stifled good ideas because we would rather “fit in” than raise any eyebrows.

At first, I was shocked to realize that the groupthink ideal wasn’t the best idol for the corporate world to worship. Then I realized the obvious: 100% of my most innovative moments happen when I am alone. Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell, three of the greatest creative contributors to the world of physics, worked almost entirely alone. I’m no Einstein, but I recognize that most innovation comes to a mind free of distraction.

Avoiding A Collaboration Calamity

As the research floods in, it has become obvious that the groupthink approach does not produce the results we need. Innovation requires creativity. Creativity often requires solitude. Is there a way to leverage the creative need to focus in a solitary state while still harnessing the energy of a team? The more I considered the collaboration calamity syndrome, I recognized that I had unwittingly designed much of my team leadership to avoid many of the pitfalls that come with the groupthink process.

Collaboration still enables powerful work to be done effectively. There is vital energy and synergy when you work in a team. However, it may not be the best method to harness innovative ideas unless one is a masterful group leader. Here are some ways to harness the creative soul of innovation and the energy of teamwork:

  1. Fly solo first. Allow your team to first brainstorm in private. Ideas can then be shared with the team lead anonymously. There are also plenty of free online software offerings that can manage this for you. Or, you can go old fashioned and use the dropbox method or sticky notes on an idea wall.
  1. Interview individuals. When I lead process improvement work, I often interview individuals one-on-one. I find that people speak more freely without the fear of judgment by their peers. Individuals are more open to sharing ideas and asking questions.
  1. Vote anonymously. To further remove evaluation apprehension, have the team’s brainstorming ideas voted on anonymously without knowing who contributed the suggestions.
  1. Keep the team small. More than four people on a team can become cumbersome. I’ve found during my facilitations that three to four people are all it takes to make a significant leap forward in innovation and implementations.
  1. Celebrate individual talent. Another issue I often find in teams: overlooking one person’s significant contributions in order to avoid offending the other players. In reality, one or two people usually perform the lion’s share of the work. Acknowledging and supporting individual contributions are just as important as working together as a team.

Collaboration Is A Tool, Not A Rule

When it comes to obtaining stakeholder buy-in, implementation and sustainability, you can harness the gestalt of the team to see the innovative solution evolve into reality. Corporations have suffered too long under the managerial rule of conformity over individualism. Now that diversity is becoming yet another go-to slogan, I think it’s important to understand that “diversity” is not just skin deep.

A wise leader will be able to harness individual talents for the betterment of the team. Diversity includes celebrating individualism in ideas, perspectives and unique contributions without judgment. It’s critical to create a safe environment to share thoughts in order to reap the rewards of unique idea generation. Collaboration can kill creativity if used traditionally. Teamwork really is dream-work, but perhaps it’s not the wellspring of genius and innovation.

The science man and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.



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