Alignment vs. Innovation?January 21, 2010 9 Comments
As it turns out, the practice of brainstorming has something of a bad reputation, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from its prevalence in many well meaning groups and organizations. Research has shown that bringing people together to start brainstorming ideas yields fewer ideas overall, and fewer novel ideas, than having individuals first go off and think on their own and later compile their lists. The reason is that group think and social pressure can tend to tip and narrow group brainstorms in certain directions that rule out “out of the box” thinking. Furthermore, there is a tendency for many groups to want to come to agreement about certain ideas, preferring a sense of group cohesion and victory, over pushing one another and risking conflict and hurt feelings.
Keith Sawyer, social psychologist and author of Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, highlights that this is part of a larger trend of groups boxing themselves into certain kinds of thinking and processes that ultimately limit possibilities. Innovation, claims Sawyer, is closely linked to improvisation, which requires a kind of openness and risk-taking that is not often found in formalized groups and organizations. For this reason, we can sometimes confuse coming to agreement on an idea with coming up with the best or a new idea. To ease tension and keep momentum going, notes Sawyer, groups may tend towards over-engineering planning efforts that end up with participants picking only from what is known and comfortable. Or in an effort to make everyone feel good and that their input is valuable, they may undermine cutting edge thinking by saying that “all ideas are okay” when in fact, that isn’t true. Bringing more intention to the process (such as saying, “we want really creative ideas”) can help – you get what you ask for!
It seems then that in some cases we may be too quick to try and integrate people and/or ideas rather than sit with the requisite tension and uncertainty that ultimately allow something new to arise. On the other hand, when it comes to accounting for individual failings in the realm of assessing risks, other research I mentioned in a past post (“The Group Effect”) suggests that early integration and alignment may be exactly what we need to help groups think more in terms of collective interest – that is, get them thinking as a “we” as soon as possible! All of this speaks to the need for us to be clear about what we seek (agreement, alignment, understanding, innovation) with stakeholders and adjust our processes accordingly. In the end, not all collaboration is or should be built alike.