The new science of workplace creativity

Want to unlock your organization’s true creative potential? Research suggests a solitary washroom in a central location may be the key. This and other surprising discoveries from the new science of creativity, after the jump.

In his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer shows that high performing employees—those with the most useful new ideas—consistently engage in the most conversations. The power of conversations to measurably increase creative thinking is nearly unfailing.

Lehrer shows us how a stock trader’s profits rise with the number of instant messages he shares with colleagues. (In one study, typical traders generated profits on only 55 per cent of their trades, whereas those who were perpetually plugged in profited more than 70 per cent of the time.) Among scientists, he points out that “home run” papers—academic articles cited in at least one thousand studies—are six times more likely to be produced by multiple authors than lone geniuses. And he plucks from the annals of Broadway history yet more data to show how the frequency of interaction among playmakers accurately predicted the success of more than two thousand musicals.

Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern University, helps explain this phenomenon by using the power of Q, where Q represents the “social intimacy” of people working together. Intermediate Q, he argues, or intermediate levels of social intimacy, coupled with frequent interaction, overwhelmingly produces the greatest creative benefits to working teams.

According to Uzzi, West Side Story, the most critically and commercially successful Broadway musical of all time, benefited from the ideal Q value (2.6): the right number of unfamiliar newcomers was able to push the musical’s core team of collaborators into new territory. In contrast, Broadway’s worst decade came between 1920 and 1930, when big names like Cole Porter, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Rodgers and Hammerstein made a habit of working together. For the creators of West Side Story, the right mixture of newbies and long-time collaborators proved vital to the show’s success.

Brian Uzzi isn’t the only person dissecting workplace creativity into observable, quantifiable and reproducible patterns of communication.

At the MIT Media Lab: Human Dynamics Laboratory, researchers have shown that successful teams, especially the most successful creative teams, oscillate between internal “engagement” (devoting time to their own teams) and external “exploration” (devoting time to ideas gathered from outside sources). In one test group, this balance was almost 90 per cent accurate in distinguishing highly creative teams from their less creative counterparts. Among all test groups, this ability accounted for nearly 50 per cent of the variation in a team’s performance.

Interestingly, within the highest performing groups, employees met as a team only about half the time; for the remaining half, members spoke one-on-one in side conversations, and only for short amounts of time. Ideal levels of “engagement,” like “exploration,” were shown to have a surprisingly precise sweet spot.

Steve Jobs knew this, albeit intuitively. While building offices for Pixar studios in Oakland, California, Jobs surprised architects by swapping blueprints of a three-building compound with plans for an airy one-building campus. And the washrooms? Just a single, centrally located pair, to increase the chances that everyone—from line cooks to story artists and producers—might meet face-to-face. It didn’t matter that some people had to walk 10 minutes to the john.

In a world communicating at breakneck speed, what else can the nascent science of creativity teach us about working together? About bridging gaps between disciplines and industries? About embedding human encounters into the changing structure of the online universe? About the repositioning of corporate power? That’s what makes the interdisciplinary new science of creativity so exciting—its ability to raise, and its potential to test and observe, questions like these.

It’s about time we all got a little more creative.