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The Individual vs. The Group: The Criterion For Creativity

Since time immemorial, creativity and innovation have been the engine of progress for humankind.  Progress and development on our planet Earth have been totally dependent upon our species' ability to adapt, for example,  to different climates, to create and innovate better tools for hunting, farming, and for predation or self-protection to cite a few.


Creativity and innovation have brought about the agricultural revolution in Anatolia around 10,000 B.C., they have ushered in the industrial revolution in the late 18th century, they caused the invention of the printing press, electricity, the automobile, the telephone, the radio, and the television --all the way to the computer, the Internet and the Wide World Web. All of these inventions have accelerated, in turn, the pace of human innovation in agriculture, medicine, engineering, weaponry and so on.


The success of any organization, be it for-profit or not-for-profit, depends on two vital ingredients: creativity and innovation. To remain competitive in a market-driven economy, many organizations are facing the challenge of encouraging and stimulating the generation of new ideas, new innovations that contribute to the survival and growth of the organization.


The pursuit of creativity and innovation is not only confined to commercial organizations, not-for-profit organizations, the public and government sectors are also looking for ways to achieve efficiency, effectiveness, and thus greater productivity. Invariably, they are all looking for better ways of working, to find innovative solutions to problems, to enhance the satisfaction of their constituencies, shareholders, stakeholders, etc.


Often the vexing and perennial question is asked: Is the individual or the group more creative, more innovative? In 1950, Alex Osborn, an advertising executive, came up with the idea of brainstorming for creativity and innovation by a group or a team. Text books readily adopted Mr. Osborn's simple idea and organizations began to experiment with it by forming groups and teams to brain storm for new ideas.


The popularity of brainstorming ran its course when in the 1970s a side finding from a Risky Shift Phenomenon study concluded that individuals were more creative than groups despite the fact that the main objective of the study was to determine the risk-taking behavior of young vs. older individuals. The pendulum swung from the group to the individual until the 1990s as a large group of studies indicated that individuals are more creative than groups.


According to Geoff Colvin, Senior Editor at Large of Fortune Magazine at Time, Inc., many studies show that the importance of human groups as distinct from individuals in creating knowledge has increased by leaps and bounds on account of the growth of information technology.  He claimed that a massive study of 20 million research papers in 252 fields within science and engineering, the social sciences, and the arts and humanities over 50 years  including 2 million patents of all kinds over 30 years provide evidence that groups are more creative than individuals. In nearly 100 percent of these scientific fields, more research is being done by teams than solitary individuals. Even if we were to discount Colvin's eye-opening estimates by 50 percent, they still will blow us away by resounding very impressive.


Thus, the logical conclusion is that groups are more creative and innovative than individuals. Hence, the common contention is that those searching for the fountain of creativity have traditionally emphasized the solitary inventor. A single-person-centered perspective on creativity does no longer hold water. Take for example Thomas Edison, who is considered a solo inventor, but, in fact, he is a team in disguise. His inventions would not have been possible, had he not depended on the creative work of his team (of assistants working around him). The idea of a lone genius must have for decades distracted us from the more useful focus on the higher potential source of creativity by groups or teams.


The shift from focusing on the individual to the group is predicated on specialization. As information and knowledge increases, people would have no choice but specialize in narrower areas of it in order to gain mastery. For most problems, a group of people are required to find the best solution.  As teams increasingly produce better solutions than individuals, individuals become less important in creativity. The result is that humans working in groups become more important to the success of organizations.


There is also another factor in favor of groups, which by virtue of their composition, they produce teamwork and synergy. As a result, the use of teams in organizations has increased during the last two decades. The major reason is the expectation that teamwork affords additional performance gains that exceed the mere sum of its members' single contributions. In other words, individuals do not provide synergy (2+2=5 effect), but groups (teams) do.


In a social-psychological environment group members experience the release of endorphins. Many people find it stimulating and rewarding to be in the presence of others. Studies have shown that in group interactions, the heart rate of the participants levels out, they have a release of endorphins, and their mood improves. In other words, people feel better in groups, and thus they perform better in groups than they would by working alone. A study in biology has shown that a college rowing team that trained together experienced elevated surge of endorphins than individuals who had followed the same training regime alone.


The contention is that being in the presence of others in a group is usually rewarding, comforting, and invigorating. This condition helps us complete well-learned tasks better, however, interacting in a group does not improve the idea-generating process. In a study based on word-association test, experimental subjects tended to generate clichés and safer word associations when working in groups than when they worked independently. Additional studies later have shown that individuals are better in generating novel ideas than groups.


If we are talking about creativity and innovation, if we were to apply the criterion of creativity in deciding whether the individual or the group is more creative, then we would conclude that the individual is more creative for he or she generates novel ideas for problem solving.


To get away from either or, black and white, the binary approach to determining the individual or the group is more creative, we should be using the Contingency Approach, which says "It all depends!"  There are two streams of research which have shown that creativity is contingent upon the task involved. Namely, if the task facing the organization is a well-learned, familiar problem, then groups would excel in finding an innovative solution. On the other hand, if the task at hand is completely new, the individual would generate new ideas. For example, if airbags in certain makes and models of automobiles when released injure the driver, then the group would be better in finding innovative solutions to rectify the problem. However, if the problem is to eliminate the airbags altogether and find another safety measure, then the individual would be able to generate new ideas to solve the problem.


The second stream of research has repeatedly shown that groups are more effective in generating creative solutions to unstructured (i.e., poorly understood or ambiguous) problems than individuals. On the other hand, if the problem is structured (i.e., well understood, clearly defined), then individuals do a better creative job of problem solving than groups. Therefore, the creativity of the individual or the group depends on the nature of the problem: structured or unstructured.


Back to our previously stated vexing question: Is the individual or the group more creative, more innovative? The Contingency Approach to whether the individual or the group is more creative puts an end to the years of debates and controversies by applying the criterion of creativity which depends on the task at hand and on whether the problem is structured or unstructured. Both the individual and the group are creative, but one excels the other depending on the circumstances surrounding a given problem.



Z. S. Demirdjian, Ph.D.

Senior Review Editor

California State University, Long Beach, CA

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