Get the Most Out of Your Creative Thinkers

leslie ayers by Leslie Ayers on October 29, 2013
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The best work comes from teamwork, right? It’s a concept that’s been drilled into our heads since grammar school. But, as it turns out, it’s not always true.

In her book Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration, Kellogg School of Management professor Leigh Thompson asserts that conflict and mistrust — two things we assume have no place in well-oiled creative teams — can actually serve a purpose.

Citing research conducted at the University of Cologne, Germany, Thompson notes in a Harvard Business Review podcast that mistrust shuts down creativity in social situations because people censor themselves. But in the workplace, she says, “sophisticated team leaders could … capitalize on that by generating the ideas in private and then maybe building some later trust so that those could be made public.”

Conflict is also a “two-headed animal,” Thompson says, not only because it can sometimes boost creativity, but also because you may actually want to foster a certain type of conflict during creative brainstorming. “The good type of conflict is what’s known as cognitive conflict,” in which people debate ideas without attacking one another personally, she says.

To that end, Thompson advocates “brainwriting” as an alternative to brainstorming to make group idea generation and problem-solving more fruitful. It encourages the best ideas to bubble to the top, even when they don’t come from the most extroverted or senior team members.

The three-step process works as follows:

1. Ask each team member to write down one idea or solution on an index card in the first 10 minutes of the meeting.

2. When time is up, collect the cards, post them to a wall, and read them aloud (without identifying who wrote them, of course).

3. Have the group vote for the best idea or solution by marking the card with a sticker or a check mark.

This approach fosters a “meritocracy of ideas,” says Thompson, and helps combat negative group dynamics like groupthink and nonparticipation.

It also keeps the most vocal contributors from winning just because they’re the loudest. After all, Thompson reports in Fortune, in a six-person group, three people do 70 percent of the talking.

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