Sunday, 7 April 2013

Innovation, Creativity and Work Environments

A few days ago I was reading an article via Fast Company about the challenges that traditional working environments have been facing inside our businesses. In fact, today, according to the article, our organisations need office freedom to be able to be more productive.

In particular, one of the office freedom's benefits described within the article would be the ability to overcome 'Groupthink', a phenomenon that often occurs in our workplaces undermining creativity and innovation.

Groupthink , the article reported, “is the psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people. It’s when the desire for conformity in the group results in an unchallenged outcome.

 We’ve all found ourselves in situations where we agree with something that we may typically challenge. People within an organization try to minimize conflict and reach a decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints, and by protecting themselves from criticism from the group as a whole.

This point made me think of 'Quiet. The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking', remarkable book by Susan Cain. In the chapter titled 'When collaboration kills creativity', Susan Cain describes 'The rise of the New GroupThink and the Power of Working Alone'.

In fact, similarly to the Fast Company's article mentioned above, Susan Cain reports a series of studies and research showing that the right working conditions that allow exceptional performance inside our businesses might not be always found in traditional workplaces.

For example, Reebok International in 2000 consolidated 1,250 employees in their new headquarters in Massachusetts. While the managers assumed that their shoe designers would enjoy an office space with plenty of access to each other so that they could brainstorm, shoe designers told them that actually they needed peace and quiet to be able to concentrate.

Similarly, company 37signals, for ten years beginning in 2000, asked hundreds of people where they liked to work when they needed to get something done. They found that people went anywhere but their offices, which were full of distractions.

Also, according to another range of studies reported by Susan Cain, while traditional brainstorming does't actually overcome peer pressure – the brainstorming's idea was originated by Osborn during the 1940s/1950s purposefully to tackle this phenomenon - the online brainstorming does. “Group brainstorming electronically, when properly managed do better...the larger the group, the better it performs" the author writes. "The same is true for 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.”

This is due to the fact that while participating in an online working group let collaboration to emerge, at the same time the 'solo thought' – vital to creativity – remains free from peer pressure.

Indeed, the author reports that this is not a case against face-to-face collaboration at all. In fact, “studies show that face-to-face interactions create trust in a way that online interactions can't”.

Instead, the suggestion given by Susan Cain, would be to refine the way we do it, by creating more flexible settings in which people are both free “to circulate in interactions but also to disappear in more private workplaces when they need to focus.

“I have experienced this phenomenon personally” Susan Cain writes. “I wrote most of this book on a laptop at my favorite densely packed neighborhood café. The café worked as my office because it had specific attributes that are absent from many modern workplaces. It was social, yet its casual, come-and-go-as-you-please nature let me free from unwelcome entanglements and able to deliberately practice my writing...The coffee shop was full of people bent over their own computers, and if the expressions of rapt concentration on their faces were any indication, I wasn't the only one getting a lot of work done.”

Finally, Susan Cain reports that many organisations (e.g. Microsoft and Pixar Animation Studios) are starting to understand and embrace the value of flexible settings. These organisations are creating new plans and conditions for their employees that allow both solo and collaborative work so that so to benefit and respect every type of individual. That way, innovation, creativity and productivity are sustained within the whole organisation.

If you wish to know more about Susan Cain views on these topics, I would recommend not only reading her interesting book but also watching a 20-minute video on YouTube  where she  presents the major key points expressed in her work.