Modern workplaces can kill a team’s creativity -- here's how to get it back

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Are you working in a hyper-connected team that is constantly pinging each other on Slack or Google chat?

When you get together for a “brainstorm”, do you jump straight in, without pause?

Are you constantly seeking feedback from customers about your ideas?

If you answered yes to any of these – or god forbid, all of them – you are killing your team’s creativity. Here are some strategies on how to win it back.

Work as a team, but only intermittently

Associate Professor Ethan Bernstein from Harvard Business School (HBS) and colleagues conducted a study to examine the optimal amount of team interaction to solve complex problems. They looked at teams where individual members worked in isolation, teams that constantly interacted (e.g. via Slack), and teams that interacted intermittently.

All teams set out to solve the same problem so that the researchers could compare the quality of the solutions.

Bernstein and his colleagues found that groups whose members worked in isolation had the greatest amount of variance in the quality of their solutions.

They produced some of the best ideas, but also some of the worst. In contrast, groups that communicated constantly had a high average quality across all their solutions but failed to produce any of the highest rated ones.

What really surprised the researchers is that the groups that interacted intermittently had the best of both worlds.

These groups had a high average quality of their solutions – comparable to the groups that worked together constantly, but because they were interacting for only part of the time, they also had enough variation to produce some of the highest quality solutions compared to the other groups.

Practice Open Monitoring meditation

Much has been written about the benefits of meditation, however, there is a specific type of meditation that is particularly effective for creative thinking.

Researchers from Leiden University compared Open Monitoring meditation (whereby you focus on all and any sensations experienced during meditation), with Focused Attention meditation (where you focus on a specific thought or object) and their impact on creativity.

The researchers found that Open Monitoring meditation significantly enhanced creative thinking ability, whereas Focused Attention meditation did not.

Encouraging teams to practice Open Monitoring meditation prior to brainstorms and other situations where creativity is required is therefore an effective way to kick off these workshops and meetings.

Only seek feedback if the environment is right

In teams pursuing innovation, seeking feedback from customers often comes as part of the job. However, some work environments can actually hinder the impact of this feedback on creativity.

Research published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior demonstrated that a wide variety of feedback from different customers has the most positive impact on creative performance when employees feel they have sufficient time to work on their ideas. In contrast, when time pressure is high, feedback is less effective at increasing creativity.

So if you are encouraging your team to be getting input from customers and other sources, make sure that they have ample time to consider how best to apply the feedback.

Disconnect with devices and reconnect with nature

So much of how teams interact with each other happens in the office and while they are attached to their devices, sending messages via Slack, IM, email, or whichever software application happens to be the flavour of the month. However, these conditions are killing creativity.

Research from the University of Utah and University of Kansas took the idea of disconnection with technology and immersion in nature to the extreme and took a group of people on a four-day hike in which they couldn’t access their digital devices.

Compared to performance on a creativity test on the morning of the first day of the hike, results taken from the morning of the very last day showed an improvement of 50%.

While most teams don’t have the luxury to go hiking for four days, taking more regular breaks from technology and going for walking meetings or conducting meetings in your local park will boost creative performance.

Dr Amantha Imber is the Founder of Inventium, Australia’s leading innovation consultancy and the host of How I Work, a podcast about the habits and rituals of the world’s most successful innovators.

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