A Relationship Story
Igniting the Creative Spark

Creativity is the fuel source for innovation and growth in successful businesses. It’s true for me in my McDermott & Bull retained search practice and it’s equally true for major enterprises like Ingram Micro, The Capital Group, and The Irvine Company. For all of us, unleashing success could be a function of unlocking creativity. So how does it work?

After doing some reading on this subject, I realized this could be a perfect opportunity to learn what our community thinks about igniting creativity. Recently I asked all of you:

“Think about creativity in organizations. Do you believe that creativity is better maximized in organizations through a culture that strongly encourages individuality or one that strongly encourages teaming?”

I received a staggering 575 responses, and I thank you all for that. The community response was a whopping 75% majority believing creativity is better fostered in organizations that emphasize teaming versus individuality.

Also, 10% of the people wouldn’t or couldn’t answer the question. Of course, it’s obvious the question was limiting and simplistic, but it wasn’t a trick question. You see, during my reading on this subject I had a hunch about what most business people might believe about this. Yes, in fact, the experts disagree with our majority. I thought it might be fascinating to juxtapose the prevailing perceptions against the empirical evidence. Here’s what I learned:

First, my friend Bertha Masuda, Founder and Principal of the Compensation Solutions Consulting firm Vivient Consulting, had shared an article with me called “Igniting the Creative Spark” by Professor Barry Staw from the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business.

Staw’s 15 years of research on creativity contended that, by every measure, groups that encourage individualism proved more creative than groups emphasizing teaming, and the advantages of an individualistic culture are especially important when innovation is the explicit goal. Now don’t think I’m suggesting there is no value in teaming, just stay with me here…

Soon after reading this article I read a fascinating book called The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. It describes how the solutions derived from the collective wisdom of the crowd are always better than the solution of even the most prestigious expert. However – and here is the most compelling learning – the members of the crowd must be sufficiently independent to allow their individual creativity to combine into a “perfect” answer. Answers from teams that lacked member independence proved ineffective.

Surowiecki suggested that issues such as peer pressure and “groupthink” can significantly stifle the expression of individual creativity in a team setting.

An example of valuing the individual can be found in one of our most iconic modern institutions – Google (a McDermott & Bull client, by the way). The bright Googlers get to spend 20% of their time free to pursue projects of their choice, and many of Google’s best ideas have been generated as a function of this unique practice.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that 75% of us are wrong. Teaming is highly valued by all of us. No one would question that great ideas are fueled by people working together. However, a zeal for teaming as a panacea for every approach and solution may dilute the extraordinary power of individual creativity in organizations. So test the experts! Here’s an idea you could try with your teams:

For your next brainstorming, instead of people attending without thinking in advance, try asking them to work on ideas individually. Even consider asking them to send ideas in anonymously, especially if people might be unwilling to share their thoughts in a group. Just imagine the power of a brainstorming if you really had all the ideas instead of just the ones people will blurt out in a meeting. If the experts are right at all, maybe the team’s true potential might be realized.

Thank you for sharing time with me. I welcome your thoughts and comments. I would be pleased to serve as a speaker for your companies or groups on subjects pertaining to acquiring and keeping the best talent, and of course, please let me know if I can assist with the talent acquisition needs of your company or others you know. Thank you.

Links and References:

Bertha Masuda – Vivient Consulting www.vivient.com

www.ingrammicro.com www.capgroup.com www.irvinecompany.com

Article Reference: “Individualism-Collectivism and Group Creativity” by Barry Staw and Jack Goncalo, published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, May 2006.

Book Recommendation: The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.


Jeff Black
Principal Consultant, McDermott & Bull Executive Search
Cell: (714) 356-1949 Office: (949) 753-1700 ext. 310
2 Venture, Suite 100 Irvine, CA 92618
black@mbsearch.net www.mbsearch.net http://www.jeffblackmcdermottbull.blogspot.com/