Are We More Creative Alone Or Together?

Are we more creative alone or together?

Our workspaces and office culture put more emphasis on open spaces for better collaboration. The idea is that generating ideas and executing on the work can happen more efficiently if we work in a collaborative space at all times. Considering the rise in stress in the workplace, there is a growing sentiment that open spaces do not guarantee more creativity or even productivity. What are the best conditions for creativity at work? Are we more creative in teams or alone?

Read more about the history of the cubicle and open offices.

Open spaces and team collaboration

Offices have been moving to open spaces for years. Some companies use their open, flexible spaces as a company benefit where employees can work and play. What studies have found is that these spaces meant for impromptu collaboration have increased noise and distractions while decreasing productivity.

Alone time and deep work

Susan Cain writes in her book, Quiet, that introverts require alone time to be truly creative. She argues that open environments and team collaboration favor extroverts.

Watch Susan Cain’s TED talk on the power of introverts.

Extroverts who are wired for recharging in social settings will perform better in these group settings. They will most likely be better at generating more ideas and articulating them more clearly. Those who communicate their ideas with the most confidence are more successful at pushing their work forward. According to Susan’s research, these ideas are not always the best for the team, project, or company.

Flow state as a group

Introverts will opt for working alone. However, research has shown that people have a more positive experience with achieving flow state in a group. Taking into account the working needs of introverts, how can a group that has a mix of introverts and extroverts achieve flow state?

Eric Barker, the author of Barking up the Wrong Tree, writes in his blog that trying to achieve flow in a group may seem like the opposite of what flow is. However, he shares the high-level takeaways from his work on teams.

Conditions for achieving flow state in groups

1. Finding a group goal

Creative teams face the challenge of finding the problem while trying to solve it at the same time. Keith Sawyer writes in his book, Group Genius, that these types of environments can produce interesting innovations if the team is set up and supported in the areas listed below.

2. Listening and concentration

Each member is actively engaged with the team. They shift focus fluidly from each team member’s contribution. The team as a whole is focused on the immediate task.

3. Balancing autonomy and egos

This is a combination of giving the team enough guidance, autonomy, and encouraging the individual team members to be flexible. Think of the team like an improvisational group. Each member is focused on a prompt, engaged with each other’s performance, and no one person is the star.

4.Aligning skill levels, team dynamics, and communication

Group flow stops when there is a large gap in skill level between people on the team. For each person to contribute equally, they each must find a place to contribute and be in a place where they do not hold the team back or leave it behind.

The next part is to learn everyone’s work styles. Increased familiarity with how each team member works can help you adjust. This cuts down on needless meetings and helps the team achieve flow.

5. Potential for failure

Flow is difficult to achieve without the risk of failure. This risk pushes the team to stretch their skills enough to feel they are growing.

Watch Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on dispelling the myth of the lone creative genius.

Closing thoughts

How can companies accommodate for different types of working styles, temperaments, and preferences to encourage creativity with individuals and team? Also, teams need to be aware of the values they are projecting on each other and how that affects the work. Yes, collaboration is necessary. However, teams need to plan for alone time for each member to work deeply.

Read more posts about creativity here.

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Matt Eng

UX Research Team Lead at IBM Design. Based in Austin,TX. Worked with clients such as Alcatel-Lucent, Ogilvy, RBC, Deloitte, Whirlpool, Polycom, Symantec, and Pebble. Matt teaches, mentors, and speaks about design, creativity, and fostering stronger connections within teams.

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