Group Creativity

IdeaConnection Interview with Paul Paulus, co-author of Group Creativity
By Graham Duncan
Even with the information explosion and the growing necessity for specialization, the development of innovations still requires group interaction at various stages in the creative process.

Graham Duncan (GD): You are the former chair of Department of Psychology and Dean of the College of Science at the University of Texas, at Arlington, and your co-editor, Bernard Nijstad, is Professor of Psychology, at the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands. What creative solutions did you use to collaborate on this project while working across the Atlantic Ocean?

Photo of Paul Paulus Paul Paulus: Bernard was a student of Wolfgang Stroebe, who had a rather different perspective on group creativity than our group at the University of Texas. Bernard became interested in the cognitive perspective of group creativity which we had developed, and he subsequently developed an elaborate cognitive model of his own.

We began to correspond about our mutual interests and noted all the exciting work going on in this newly emerging area. I felt it was the right time to showcase the different aspects of group creativity, he agreed, and so we began to collaborate on this and other projects.

Bernard then came to Texas for a few months while he was still in graduate school, and we later organized a National Science Foundation conference on this topic at the University of Texas at Arlington. This brought together a diverse set of scholars, many of whom had never met one another. It was an exciting event, and the basis for the book. Ironically, Bernard grew up in Ermelo in the Netherlands, where I was born. After publication of the book, we had a special event at the local library to showcase this book and the two native authors.

GD: What key questions did you set out to answer in the book?

Paul Paulus: When I began my research about 20 years ago, it was hard to find the term "group creativity" in textbooks or scholarly literature. The existing scholarly literature suggested that there was no such thing as group creativity.

However, a number of research programs were showing both the limitations and the promise of group creativity. We felt it was important to showcase this literature to stimulate further research on this topic and to provide a realistic reference point for practitioners. So we were able to publish the first scholarly volume on this topic. It has generated a lot of interest among young scholars, and internationally with a version now available in Chinese,

GD: For the past 15 years your research has focused mostly on understanding creative processes in groups or teams. What led to your interest in this topic?

Paul Paulus: For much of my career I have been trying to figure out how to get the "most out of groups."

Much of the literature in social psychology and group dynamics has focused on the negative aspects of groups such as conformity, groupthink, and violence. Yet I had also personally experienced some very positive groups both interpersonally and in terms of creativity and performance. However, in controlled research it has been difficult to document such positive effects.

A systematic series of experiments on brainstorming by Michael Diehl and Stroebe were published in 1987. They suggested that group creativity was an oxymoron. The experiments demonstrated the many ways groups can inhibit creativity and the experiments implied that this was inevitably the case. I disagreed and decided to embark on a program of research to prove them and others wrong. Luckily, I was blessed with an excellent group of undergraduate and graduate students who joined me on this journey. Without them I would have made very little progress.

GD: How has your research in this field impacted the way you view the formation of teams in business and politics?

Paul Paulus: I love being a contrarian – that is part of the fun of science. I felt my field of study was wrong about group creativity, but I was also convinced that the many proponents of teamwork and team innovation were also off base.

There is a presumption in the world of business and politics that simply throwing people together in a brainstorming session or a collaborative team will lead to great innovations. Unfortunately, at present there is simply no solid evidence for this. It doesn't mean that teams in those contexts cannot be creative. On the basis of research in our field, I presume that most are underperforming or only tapping a small percentage of their innovative potential.

GD: Your work has brought you in contact with the armed services, including a position at the Walter Reed Institute of Army Research. Are there key lessons to be learned from the military regarding group creativity and teamwork?

Paul Paulus: I think there are, but I know of no systematic study of this question. A column by Mark Moyer of the New York Times published in the Fort Worth Star Telegram newspaper on December 22, 2009 discussed the issue of creativity in the military.

I have discussed this issue a lot with my son-in-law who is an Army officer. He indicates that team creativity is an important part of success. When I was with Walter Reed it was to study the impact of off base housing on the health and well being of Army families. It was before I began my group creativity research and was a follow-up to 20 years of studying the impact of crowding of inmates in prisons.

When I was at Walter Reed the Army was moving to a cohort model – training and keeping soldiers in the same unit to build cohesion and the ability to work together as a team. This apparently was based on suggestions based on social science analyses indicating the importance of team cohesion and experience. This approach has subsequently been supported by additional research on work groups or teams.

GD: What can businesses learn about group creativity as evidenced in the armed services?

Paul Paulus: From a scholarly point of view probably very little.

There may be a transfer of learning and approaches as successful armed services leaders go into the business world, but I don't know of any study about the transferability of armed service expertise to expertise required in other fields of endeavor.

The most relevant for business is the expanding literature on team innovation. This literature deals with the factors that influence creativity in the workplace and it yields a relatively consistent set of conclusions. Creativity in the workplace appears to require not only creative people but also a supportive environment and leadership.

GD: The recent Climate Action Summit in Copenhagen revealed the challenges of politics, finance and the tensions between developed and developing nations. Are these constraints so strong as to nullify the creative process that is envisioned by those who have high hopes for positive results and agreements from these types of events?

Paul Paulus: That is one of the difficulties in bringing innovations into the world. There are a lot of great ideas and workable solutions for the various problems we face, but getting consensus among the competing factions is difficult because of their differing needs.

Research on groups suggests that if groups are forced to come to a consensus, and they really listen to one another's suggestions, thoughtful innovations may occur. However, when countries have competing interests and there is nothing to force agreement, little progress can be expected except what individual countries decide to for their own benefit.

GD: Do you believe there are other forums that are more conducive to creative and innovative solutions for complex challenges like climate change?

Paul Paulus: One problem with the forum was the size of the group. A basic principle is that the larger the group, the less effective it tends to be for effective exchange and development of innovative ideas.

I presume there were breakout groups, but much of the media coverage showed big audiences listening to presentations. Most of the interaction and conflict was of a political rather intellectual nature. So it was really not designed for creative solutions, rather for political jockeying. I think it would be better if small groups of experts from different disciplines and countries met to discuss innovative but feasible solutions. The various suggestions developed could then be presented to the leadership of the countries involved. This would at least focus attention on a small subset of solutions that were derived through a broad consensus.

GD: You indicate while groups and teams are often seen as sources of creative and intellectual stimulation, research shows that group efforts are often less than optimal. Have businesses and other organizations become too simplistic in their expectations of teams?

Paul Paulus: Definitely – it is a fad that most people believe in. There's a belief that teamwork will enhance creativity. I am sure this is true sometimes, but more often than not it is not the case.

The literature on group creativity has shown that groups outperform collections of individuals only under very special conditions. Thus far, to the best of my knowledge, there has been no study with workgroups that has compared a team to a similar set of individual workers. Almost all or the research on innovation in teams involves reports of degree of creativity by the team members or the supervisors. These subjective measures may reflect beliefs about the presumed effectiveness of teams rather than reality.

GD: Although the sharing of ideas can be stimulating to a team, how does exposure to others' ideas limit one's ability to think divergently?

Paul Paulus: We have indeed shown that sharing ideas can stimulate additional ideas. However, it is possible that under some conditions such exposure might actually inhibit creativity. There is much data that shows priming or stimulating someone with one idea may make it difficult to think of a contrary idea. You may acquire a "set" or a "bias" that makes it harder to think of ideas that fall outside the domains which have been primed.

This fits with the finding that the amount of education is not related to creativity. Too much knowledge may inhibit creativity rather than encourage it.

Transformational ideas in science have often come from those who are at the fringes of a field or new to an area. They may have more flexibility in their thinking process. It has also been found that group brainstormers may converge on a smaller number of topics than a similar number of individual brainstormers. The explanation may be that group members may stay within the domains of ideas shared by the group rather than exploring a greater variety of domains.

GD: Are teams too often prone to groupthink? If so, how can we establish teams that accept and encourage divergent ideas and opinions?

Paul Paulus: Groupthink is defined as a premature consensus on a course of action in a group without full consideration of the alternatives. Although the evidence for the original groupthink model proposed by Janis is rather weak, I think this tendency to premature consensus is strong.

Laboratory studies of jury decision-making find that once such juries arrive at a majority position, they seldom move in the opposite direction. It appears very difficult for group members to change the momentum toward a specific decision. There appears to be strong bias toward agreement and against conflict. In fact, even though group members have a diversity of information on a topic, they tend to focus their discussions on areas of commonality rather than areas of difference. This means that much critical information may never be discussed.

GD: What is the strain of consensus and why does it limit creativity?

Paul Paulus: The strain toward consensus insures that groups do not fully share their diverse perspectives. So groups lose much benefit of their diversity and their potential for creative solutions.

GD: What is minority dissent, and how important is it in the creative process of a group?

Paul Paulus: Minority dissent involves individuals expressing views in a group that deviate from the majority opinion. Although such expressions may result in negative feelings on the part of the majority, consistent and reasonable expressions of minority viewpoints appear to increase the extent to which majority members reflect on the related issues. This may induce a change in position in the direction of the minority member as well as an increase in divergent or creative thinking.

Apparently, exposure to minority viewpoints leads the majority of members to the conclusion that their own favored positions or ideas may not be the only good alternatives, and this may motivate a broader search. Studies have shown that exposure to minority dissent in one area can lead to more divergent or creative thinking on other tasks not related to the dissent.

GD: Is there evidence that teams composed of individuals from varying backgrounds and diverse interests have more creativity and results than teams that are more homogenous in their make up?

Paul Paulus: It is what one would expect, but the evidence is mixed on this issue.

The literature suggests that on average there is no performance benefit of team diversity. Diversity on almost any dimension seems to lead to somewhat negative feelings among the group members.

There is a strong bias toward similarity in groups, especially along socially relevant dimensions such as race and ethnicity, age, and tenure in an organization. However, even in cases of informational diversity, such as differences in expertise, there may be some inhibitory social feelings – biases in favor of one's own area – and difficulties in fully understanding or appreciating the different perspectives.

In the area of group creativity, there's some evidence that informational diversity can be beneficial. It also appears to be important for group members to have a positive attitude toward diverse group members and to be highly motivated to understand and process the shared information. This may require frequent opportunities to exchange and clarify ideas to one another. This may be difficult if team members don't have easy and frequent access to one another, such as teams that are distributed geographically.

cover of Group CreativityGD: Creativity is often socially defined; ideas as well as team members travel across an organization. For an idea to be of value it must be accepted not only by the team members, but also by those ultimately responsible for implementation. What solutions do you recommend to ensure the implementers adopt the creative ideas the team develops?

Paul Paulus: This is an important and understudied issue. It's often said ideas are many, but successful implementation of innovations are few.

The problem is that it may take one set of skills to generate good ideas and another to effectively implement them. One solution is to have different teams focus on those different domains. This requires the ability to select individuals who are particularly good at one or the other. However, the implementers may not fully understand all of the nuances related to the innovative idea, so it may be important to keep the originators of the ideas involved in the implementation process. I believe that is the case in some companies such as Apple.

It may not be easy to separate the phases of the creative and implementation processes since even in the implementation process there may be a need for creative ideas about implementation or a need to adjust the idea to a new reality or context. At all phases of the innovation process one is likely to need creative people.

Although groups seem to be better than individuals at selecting the best ideas, this selection process is not particularly effective. The average originality of the selected ideas tends to be no higher than the average originality of all the ideas generated by these brainstormers. Instead, there seems to be a bias toward selecting more common ideas – they may have more face validity.

GD: Recent studies of creativity have highlighted the importance of mentoring in shaping the potential of young scientists, artists, performers and entrepreneurs. In your research and work, is mentoring under-used in promoting creativity and innovation in business and other organizations?

Paul Paulus: Mentoring is definitely underutilized. This is probably due to the fact that presently there are no clear guidelines for mentors.

We know that creativity can be learned or taught, but the literature on this is rather complex. Training effectiveness may depend on a range of factors such as the particular person involved and the type of creative task. It's clear that creativity can be modeled, and many creative people have had very creative mentors such as Nobel laureates from whom they could learn the "habits" of creativity. However, creativity also involves an intrinsic motivation, and this may be harder to induce by mentoring.

There is extensive literature about the influence of leaders on innovation. It suggests that leaders need to clearly structure the context to support creativity, and provide a strong creative vision.

GD: While mentoring is often informally implemented, can it play a more positive and productive role in organizations if it is formally recognized? Are there downsides of formal mentoring, such as more rigid roles and less flexibility?

Paul Paulus: Recognition of the importance of mentoring and supporting the mentoring of creativity in an organization would be a positive move. However, in the absence of clear research guidelines as to effective mentoring for specific types of creative activities and different types of people, rigid prescriptions for such mentoring are not justified.

There is a solid basis in the literature for certain general strategies that can be tried, but mentors should "experiment" to see what works best in their situation. I have talked to some people who are interested in developing creativity coaching on the basis of the research literature. This might eventually provide a platform on which to build a mentoring program.

GD: Can the development of social networks promote mentoring practices?

Paul Paulus: This would seem to be a natural outcome. It's interesting to me how little evidence there is for creativity in virtual teams or networks. There's a lot written about its potential, but there is not a single study that provides solid evidence for it.

There are some studies indicating that sharing ideas through networks or electronically can be effective. Actual implementation of effective mentoring approaches will probably require some hands-on training experiences.

GD: Twitter, Facebook and other social networking tools are increasingly popular as a business tool. Is there evidence that the use of social networking tools is conducive to group creativity?

Paul Paulus: I don't know of any specific research on this question. It does seem possible that best practices could be transmitted in that fashion.

GD: Bernard Nijstad indicates there is much to gain when groups are used in the right stages of the creative process. How does a team leader know when a group should be brought to the creative process?

Paul Paulus: My intuitions based on studying the literature suggest the following scenario. Let group members do idea generation alone first, and then share all these ideas with the group electronically. Immediately after the sharing process individuals should have an opportunity to generate additional ideas stimulated by the exchange of ideas. After this structured session, individuals should be encouraged to keep a "diary" of ideas that may be the result of a subconscious incubation process. These ideas can then be shared with the group asynchronously up to the time that a selection and evaluation process begins.

It is probably most efficient to do some preliminary evaluations of the shared ideas electronically to eliminate the ideas that seem to have little merit. After that, the group should convene to discuss the various ideas and begin the process of selecting the most promising ones.

Research suggests that this is done best in face-to-face sessions. During the evaluation time, additional ideas may occur that may build on those being considered. The final selected idea or ideas may actually be a combination of some of the best ideas shared during brainstorming plus additional insights or ideas generated during the evaluation sessions.

As we discussed earlier, during the implementation phase, it's important to maintain the involvement of those who generated the ideas to insure effective implementation.

GD: The workplace is increasingly composed of individuals from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. How can a team leader use these differences to foster the formation of the team, and later the creative process?

Paul Paulus: Even though most people prefer groups composed of those who are similar to themselves, they believe groups that involve ethnic and cultural diversity will be more creative. Such beliefs are important in that they may actually increase the likelihood that this will be the case.

Although research on cultural diversity and creativity presents a mixed picture, a number of studies have found that such diversity can increase creativity if the group has some time to build cohesiveness and awareness of what the various group members can contribute. This would be especially true for problems for which cultural diversity is likely to increase the range of useful perspectives.

GD: The group environment requires a team leader who can support, encourage and foster creativity. What types of skills are required of these team leaders?

Paul Paulus: Most of the research on leadership has been done on their impact on individuals but not teams. Based on the team creativity literature that does exist, I presume the most effective leaders for creativity will be those that provide a supportive environment, some degree of task structure, minimize social conflicts and effectively manage cognitive conflicts.

Both task focused and relationship focused leadership will be important. The task-focused leadership would provide the structure and external motivation, while the relationship oriented leader would insure effective interpersonal interaction and support. An ideal leader would be able to effectively implement both of these styles at appropriate times.

In addition to an external leader, teams should also develop shared leadership. That is, they should learn to take responsibility for their own effective functioning.

GD: In addition to having been the Chair of the Department of Psychology and Dean of the College of Science at U of Texas at Arlington, you continued to be active in research on group creativity. How do you balance the workloads between your research work and your executive responsibilities?

Paul Paulus: It is actually quite difficult. I wouldn't have continued my research if it were not for the excitement of being involved in pioneering efforts on this fascinating new topic. I've had the good fortune to enjoy much support from some excellent colleagues and graduate students. I've had a long series of graduate students who were as excited about this journey as I was. They came up with many ideas for great studies. I would have made very little progress without their efforts.

Although I'm the leader – or mentor – of the lab, the senior graduate student or a post-doctoral student typically leads the day-to-day operation. They provide guidance to the undergraduates and more junior graduate students who help carry out the studies.

We have weekly lab meetings to discuss new relevant research publications, ideas for research, and the design and conduct of our specific studies. We typically run about three or four studies per semester. Not all of them come out with interesting results, but for those that do we begin the long process of analysis, writing, and publication. It typically takes five years from the beginning of the research to its final publication. That's because our research is time intensive, and there is a laborious publication system in our field of endeavor. So it takes a lot of hard work and persistence to keep going in this enterprise.

My main role in the past few years has been to do a lot of writing of papers and grant proposals.

GD: Does your work and research include findings from Europe or Asia? What differences between regions have you found in your study of group creativity?

Paul Paulus: We have done some studies in Japan, China, Taiwan, and the Netherlands. Most of these involved perception of creativity related to diversity. In general, we find similar patterns of results across these countries where we have done studies.

Almost all of the experimental work has been done in the U.S. and Europe. However, scholars have been doing an increasing number of studies on team innovation all over the world. These are generally in agreement about the factors that are important for innovation in teams.

One of the main cultural variables studied has been individualism compared to collectivism. Individualistic cultures are presumed to be more likely to support innovation than collectivistic ones that emphasize interpersonal harmony and conformity. But so far I don't know of any compelling studies to support this assumption.

GD: Your current research is using a virtual or immersive reality paradigm to examine issues related to group diversity. Would you provide our readers with some additional information on this research project?

Paul Paulus: We have a virtual reality system, and we've done a little preliminary work with it. We were interested in using it to study reactions to diversity in groups.

Studies indicate that people will react to virtual humans or avatars in a fashion similar to real humans. We constructed some experiments where students interacted with avatars that varied by gender and race. We didn't find any compelling differences in reactions in our preliminary research.

Since this type of research is not supported by grants and involves a lot of programming, it has moved to the backburner until some student wants to make it a priority.

GD: What other interesting projects are you working on?

Paul Paulus: We are fortunate to have two grants from the National Science Foundation supporting collaborative research with computer scientists, neuroscientists, and cognitive scientists. The goal of one grant is to develop more sophisticated models of the group creative process using computational modeling of the cognitive and neural processes that underlie creativity. The other involves applying our insights to train students in computer science, architecture, and psychology to become more creative.

GD: What other interests outside of your career inspire you?

Paul Paulus: I love to travel and experience new cultures. I've been able to do a lot of that related to my career.

At present I'm on a one-year sabbatical and am spending a lot of time in Israel interacting with top scholars about team creativity and innovation. My daughter and family are spending two years there while her husband is obtaining a degree in Middle Eastern cultures.

I also love to golf, but have done much too little of this in the past 10 years. Instead, I try to do as much biking as possible to get outdoor exercise.

GD: Do you have any other comments you would like to share with our IdeaConnection readers?

Paul Paulus: I hope to update my website and my information on other Paul Paulus websites in the near future so readers will be able to keep up to date on my latest papers.

GD: Thank you. I hope you enjoy the rest of your sabbatical and studies about creativity and innovation in Israel.

In Group Creativity Paul Paulus and his co-author Bernard Nijstad describe the importance of the social and contextual factors in creativity. Group Creativity recognizes that original ideas are useful and influential in maintaining the continued development of organizations in particular and society in general.

Paul Paulus' Bio:
Paul Paulus is Dean of the College of Science and Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Arlington. He has researched the influence of groups on task performance for over 40 years. Paul's work has focused on group creativity process for the last 20 years. He and his colleagues have examined the various social and cognitive factors involved in this process and have developed theoretical models to account for the major findings.

Feedback Welcome:
We would appreciate receiving feedback about this, or any of our other articles on the IdeaConnection.com website. [Please write us] with any comments or suggestions.

If you would like us to interview you about an article or book you have written, or an interesting idea, or a business you are involved with, [please let us know].

To read other interviews with authors and people interested in innovation, creativity, and business leadership please go to IdeaConnection's Interviews with Innovation Authors.

Share on        
Next Interview »