M.I, Group-think, and how to be creative

(Improving team creativity)


Nigerian rapper Jude Abaga — more popularly known as M.I- in the earlier days of his career made a song about it. He called it “crowd mentality”. My friend, and business systems developer, Adeyinka Amurawaiye happily refers to it as “the bandwagon effect”. In more academic circles it is known as “Group think “. It’s explains the social pressure we all feel which then leads to us attempting to fit in. And no, it’s not a bad thing… most times. To take a line off M.I’s lyrics: “everybody is just doing what the crowd do, doing what the system says that we are allowed to”. But, what do we do when we are trying to be creative in groups?

Alex Osborn detailed principles for his successful form of group creativity in various bestselling books. He called it brainstorming. And his system is associated with freewheeling, and also importantly, the absence of criticism. His techniques are very interesting, and have been implemented far and wide from classroom to boardroom. It promises improved creativity for you and your team. But curiously, there are a lot of arguments that brainstorming doesn’t work. Keith Sawyer, from Washington University argues;

“Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”

One of the studies Sawyer refers to comes from Yale University in 1958. For the study, forty eight male undergraduates were grouped and tasked with a number of puzzles, creative puzzles with instructions to follow Alex Osborn’s principles of brainstorming. Also, a control set of forty-eight students were asked to work individually on same. Before you read on to the results, what do you expect? I’d guess you’ve tried team brainstorming at some point, and it was and enjoyable experience. Well. The “brain-stormers” came up with only half as many solutions as the individual solver. More interestingly, the solo student’s solutions were assessed to be more “effective” by a panel of judges. In the end, not only did the brainstorming groups think of fewer ideas, they conceived worse ideas.

The group stifled creativity?

Let’s consider how group brainstorming can go really wrong. First, all men are not created equally vocal. This indeed is true. Even if you do pack a team of extroverts, one or two will consistently be more extroverted than the rest. And what happens is that, these leaders (I use leaders in the sense of “conversation leaders” not the person with the fattest paycheck in the room) end up directing the conversation. This causes the exploration of only a limited number of options, a lot less than would have been. Also, in the spirit of discussion, individuals lose their voices and accept the group position. It’s great for team spirit, but bad for creativity.

Group think results from social pressure. Michael J. Mauboussin in “Think twice” highlights two reasons for social pressure.

The first reason is the human innate desire to fit in. Even in obvious extremes. Imagine, somehow, you find yourself off for a meeting with a new team from another division. As you open up the door, you realize that everyone is seating under the table. There are chairs in the office but, over fifteen neatly dressed professionals are having the meeting under the table. Where do you sit? It’s why we are advised to do like the Romans while in Rome, and the Lagosians while in Lagos.

Secondly, is the issue of asymmetrical information; you believe that others have access to information that you do not, hence their actions. That’s usually helpful when you truly are uninformed and have no clue what’s going on. But sometimes, it may be less than helpful. Enter Mr Solomon Asch’s experiments.

Solomon Arch reportedly started running these now famous social experiments in the 1940's, about how humans conform to group pressure. In one of the more popular setups, a true subject is made part of a group of eight people. The remaining seven are the experimenter’s accomplices. The experimenter then requests that they complete a simple task of matching the length of a given line to one of three unequal lines. In the control condition, the subject is usually error free. However, when the experimenter cues his accomplices to begin giving incorrect answers, the subject (who responds last) is swayed by the group’s wrong decision about a third of the time. A perfectly sighted individual makes a wrong decision over 30 percent of the time because of the group says, completely disregarding what he sees. Obviously, if everyone is seeing something else, I can’t be sure of what I’m seeing. Everyone’s vision is better than mine. Everyone else is better informed.

For you, moving forward, improving your team’s creativity is simple.

The core is to not eliminate options before considering them, which is what we tend to do in groups.

Most times, the options are eliminated before they are even spoken, as members subconsciously reinforce the crowd mentality. Jumping over this hurdle can be done in numerous ways. One way is by getting everyone to think individually about the problem, and note their recommendations. This way, the group is able to tap into the expertise of her individual members. Creative solutions are birthed before the crowd mentality takes core position. Apart from the obvious suggestions that would arise, non-obvious insights will also be birthed. Then team meetings would become a platform for working through these suggestions with the aim of creating integrated solutions.

So what you should do differently at the office tomorrow?

Make your team members independently & anonymously write & submit solutions to the problem before you begin the meeting. Then turn the focus of the meeting to criticizing and improving these ideas. This way, the novelty of the individual is allowed to blossom, and the refining ability, the group intelligence is put to good use.

It’s simple. It’s effective.


Image credit: Pixabay


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