Virtual Collaboration Won’t Be the Death of Creativity

Shifting to remote work can help groups generate better ideas — and more of them.

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The COVID-19 pandemic put professionals in a box — a virtual one. Overnight, managers and their teams shifted from in-person brainstorming and ideation sessions to those taking place electronically via Zoom, WebEx, and other tools.

You might assume that major changes in how we work are taking a large toll on business creativity, in light of the loss of more spontaneous face-to-face connections and interactions. One of my most outspoken executive students — a young, data-driven manager at a technology consulting company — seemed to be making that assumption when he asked how I thought virtual work “thwarted” creative processes like those his teams engage in with their clients, such as defining problem scope, exploring solutions, prototyping, and testing. My answer surprised him: Based on research I and others have conducted over the past couple of decades, I believe that the shift to remote work actually has the potential to improve group creativity and ideation, despite diminished in-person communication.1

Remembering What Really Drives Creativity

Scholars define creativity as the production of novel and useful ideas.2 Novel, in this context, means statistically rare and unique; useful means that some stakeholders see practical value in the ideas. In business, innovation is the realization of creative ideas as products and services. Think of the creative process like a river, starting with the upstream generation of ideas, often seemingly outlandish ones; proceeding to the testing and refinement of certain ideas midstream; and eventually moving downstream to the full development of chosen ideas.3

Virtual collaboration needn’t hinder any of that, nor is it at odds with the following well-established ideas about what drives creativity.

Creative ability isn’t fixed or inborn. Creativity is influenced by factors under one’s control. In one study, for example, some participants were told that raw talent and ability determine creative outcomes, while others heard that factors such as motivation and persistence drive creativity.4 Both groups then completed a creativity task scored by judges who didn’t know what participants had been told. The group that believed creativity was under their control significantly outperformed the other. The conclusion from many such studies is that mindset matters. And you don’t need to collaborate in person to embrace a proactive mindset about creativity — you can do that independently, from anywhere.

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Frontiers

An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
More in this series

References

1. For a review, see L. Thompson, “Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration” (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2013).

2. T.M. Amabile, “The Social Psychology of Creativity: A Componential Conceptualization,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 45, no. 2 (August 1983): 357-376.

3. L. Thompson and D. Schonthal, “Setting the Stage for Creativity: Upstream, Mid-Stream, and Downstream,” chap. 2 in “Strategy and Communication for Innovation: Integrative Perspectives on Innovation in the Digital Economy,” 3rd ed., eds. N. Pfeffermann and J. Gould (New York: Springer, 2017).

4. A.J. O’Connor, C.J. Nemeth, and S. Akutsu, “Consequences of Beliefs About the Malleability of Creativity,” Creativity Research Journal 25, no. 2 (April-June 2013): 155-162.

5. W. Stroebe and M. Diehl, “Why Groups Are Less Effective Than Their Members: On Productivity Losses in Idea-Generating Groups,” European Review of Social Psychology 5, no. 1 (1994): 271-303.

6. I. Scopelliti, P. Cillo, B. Busacca, et al., “How Do Financial Constraints Affect Creativity,” The Journal of Product Innovation Management 31, no. 5 (December 2013), 880-893.

7. P.B. Paulus, T. Nakui, V.L. Putman, et al., “Effects of Task Instructions and Brief Breaks on Brainstorming,” Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice 10, no. 3 (September 2006): 206-219.

8. Paulus et al., “Effects of Task Instructions,” 206-219; and K.L. Siau, “Group Creativity and Technology,” Journal of Creative Behavior 29, no. 3 (September 1995): 201-216.

9. For a review, see Thompson, “Creative Conspiracy”; and L. Thompson and D. Schonthal, “The Social Psychology of Design Thinking,” California Management Review 62, no. 4 (summer 2020): 84-99.

10. P.B. Paulus and H. Yang, “Idea Generation in Groups: A Basis for Creativity in Organizations,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 82, no. 1 (May 2000): 76-87.

11. J. Suler, “The Online Disinhibition Effect,” CyberPsychology and Behavior 7, no. 3 (July 2004): 321-326.

12. T. Menon, L. Thompson, and H. Choi, “Tainted Knowledge vs. Tempting Knowledge: People Avoid Knowledge From Internal Rivals and Seek Knowledge From External Rivals,” Management Research 52, no. 8 (August 2006): 1129-1144.

13. J.S. Mueller, C.J. Wakslak, and V. Krishnan, “Construing Creativity: The How and Why of Recognizing Creative Ideas,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 51, no. 2 (March 2014): 81-87.

14. L. Jia, E.R. Hirt, and S.C. Karpen, “Lessons From a Faraway Land: The Effect of Spatial Distance on Creative Cognition,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45, no. 5 (September 2009): 1127-1131.

15. H. Choi and L. Thompson, “Old Wine in a New Bottle: Impact of Membership Change on Group Creativity,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 98, no. 2 (November 2005): 121-132.

16. P.B. Paulus, T. Nakui, and V.L. Putman, “Group Brainstorming and Teamwork: Some Rules for the Road to Innovation,” chap. 4 in “Creativity and Innovation in Organizational Teams,” 1st ed., eds. L. Thompson and H. Choi (Hove, England: Psychology Press, 2005).

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Comments (2)
suhwe lee
From my experience working for multinational companies remotely in decades, we have practiced VMOST model – Vision, Mission, Objectives, Strategies, and Tactics with transparency, accountability, agility, and scheduled deliverables to motivate full participation and commitment for creative collaboration virtually.
Joris Cornielje
Thanks Leight, for the insightful list of tips! Some of the biases are easy to forget and hard to fight if you don't have the right insights.