Do you remember studio polling from the hit game show How to become a Millionaire? The show featured a series of questions poised to an eager contestant. These questions became increasingly difficult and the reward for a correct answer increased exponentially. To make the show more interesting group think was incorporated through studio polling and lifelines where the participant could call an expert. Over years of polling the studio the results were conclusive that groupthink produced more than the lifeline experts. The conclusion was groupthink is a powerful way to both create ideas by brainstorming and solving problems through what is known as groupthink.
Much of the information I will share was included in an article published January 30, 2012 in the New Yorker by Jonah Lehrer http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/01/30/120130fa_fact_lehrer?currentPage=all. In 2003, Charlan Nemeth, a psychology professor at Berkeley, divided two hundred and sixty-five female undergraduates into teams of five. She gave all the teams the same problem—“How can traffic congestion be reduced in the San Francisco Bay Area?”—he assigned each team one of three conditions. The first set of teams was instructed to not criticize any suggestion and to allow the free flow of ideas. These groups formed what we call the control group. The other teams—assigned what Nemeth called the “debate” condition—were told, “Most research and advice suggests that the best way to come up with good solutions is to come up with many solutions. Freewheeling is welcome; don’t be afraid to say anything that comes to mind. However, in addition, most studies suggest that you should debate and even criticize each other’s ideas.” The rest received no further instructions, leaving them free to collaborate however they wanted. All the teams had twenty minutes to come up with as many good solutions as possible.
The results were telling. The brainstorming groups slightly outperformed the groups given no instructions, but teams given the debate condition were the most creative by far. On average, they generated nearly twenty per cent more ideas. And, after the teams disbanded, another interesting result became apparent. Researchers asked each subject individually if she had any more ideas about traffic. The brainstormers and the people given no guidelines produced an average of three additional ideas; the debaters produced seven.
Nemeth’s studies suggest that the ineffectiveness of brainstorming stems from the very thing that Osborn thought was most important. As Nemeth puts it, “While the instruction ‘Do not criticize’ is often cited as the important instruction in brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy. Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.” Osborn thought that imagination is inhibited by the merest hint of criticism, but Nemeth’s work and a number of other studies have demonstrated that it can thrive on conflict. According to Nemeth, dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints. “There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings,” she says. “Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”
Another of her experiments has demonstrated that exposure to unfamiliar perspectives can foster creativity. The experiment focused on a staple of the brainstorming orthodoxy—free association. A long-standing problem with free association is that people aren’t very good at it. In the early nineteen-sixties, two psychologists, David Palermo and James Jenkins, began amassing a huge table of word associations, the first thoughts that come to mind when people are asked to reflect on a particular word. (They interviewed more than forty-five hundred subjects.) Palermo and Jenkins soon discovered that the vast majority of these associations were utterly predictable. For instance, when people are asked to free-associate about the word “blue,” the most likely first answer is “green,” followed by “sky” and “ocean.” When asked to free-associate about “green,” nearly everyone says “grass.” “Even the most creative people are still going to come up with many mundane associations,” Nemeth says. “If you want to be original, then you have to get past this first layer of predictability.”
Nemeth’s experiment devised a way of escaping this trap. Pairs of subjects were shown a series of color slides in various shades of blue and asked to identify the colors. Sometimes one of the pair was actually a lab assistant instructed by Nemeth to provide a wrong answer. After a few minutes, the pairs were asked to free-associate about the colors they had seen. People who had been exposed to inaccurate descriptions came up with associations that were far more original. Instead of saying that “blue” reminded them of “sky,” they came up with “jazz” and “berry pie.” The obvious answer had stopped being their only answer. Even when alternative views are clearly wrong, being exposed to them still expands our creative potential. In a way, the power of dissent is the power of surprise. After hearing someone shout out an errant answer, we work to understand it, which causes us to reassess our initial assumptions and try out new perspectives. “Authentic dissent can be difficult, but it’s always invigorating,” Nemeth says. “It wakes us right up.”
Criticism allows people to dig below the surface of the imagination and come up with collective ideas that aren’t predictable. And recognizing the importance of conflicting perspectives in a group raises the issue of what kinds of people will work together best. Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern, has spent his career trying to find what the ideal composition of a team would look like. Casting around for an industry to study that would most clearly show the effects of interaction, he hit on Broadway musicals. He’d grown up in New York City and attended his first musical at the age of nine. “I went to see ‘Hair,’ ” Uzzi recalls. “I remember absolutely nothing about the music, but I do remember the nude scene. That just about blew my mind. I’ve been a fan of Broadway ever since.”
Uzzi sees musicals as a model of group creativity. “Nobody creates a Broadway musical by themselves,” he said. “The production requires too many different kinds of talent.” A composer has to write songs with a lyricist and a librettist; a choreographer has to work with a director, who is probably getting notes from the producers.
Uzzi wanted to understand how the relationships of these team members affected the product. Was it better to have a group composed of close friends who had worked together before? Or did strangers make better theatre? He undertook a study of every musical produced on Broadway between 1945 and 1989. To get a full list of collaborators, he sometimes had to track down dusty old Playbills in theatre basements. He spent years analyzing the teams behind four hundred and seventy-four productions, and charted the relationships of thousands of artists, from Cole Porter to Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Uzzi found that the people who worked on Broadway were part of a social network with lots of interconnections: it didn’t take many links to get from the librettist of “Guys and Dolls” to the choreographer of “Cats.” Uzzi devised a way to quantify the density of these connections, a figure he called Q. If musicals were being developed by teams of artists that had worked together several times before—a common practice, because Broadway producers see “incumbent teams” as less risky—those musicals would have an extremely high Q. A musical created by a team of strangers would have a low Q.
Uzzi then tallied his Q readings with information about how successful the productions had been. “Frankly, I was surprised by how big the effect was,” Uzzi told me. “I expected Q to matter, but I had no idea it would matter this much.” According to the data, the relationships among collaborators emerged as a reliable predictor of Broadway success. When the Q was low—less than 1.7 on Uzzi’s five-point scale—the musicals were likely to fail. Because the artists didn’t know one another, they struggled to work together and exchange ideas. “This wasn’t so surprising,” Uzzi says. “It takes time to develop a successful collaboration.” But, when the Q was too high (above 3.2), the work also suffered. The artists all thought in similar ways, which crushed innovation. According to Uzzi, this is what happened on Broadway during the nineteen-twenties, which he made the focus of a separate study. The decade is remembered for its glittering array of talent—Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II, and so on—but Uzzi’s data reveals that ninety per cent of musicals produced during the decade were flops, far above the historical norm. “Broadway had some of the biggest names ever,” Uzzi explains. “But the shows were too full of repeat relationships, and that stifled creativity.”
The best Broadway shows were produced by networks with an intermediate level of social intimacy. The ideal level of Q—which Uzzi and his colleague Jarrett Spiro called the “bliss point”—emerged as being between 2.4 and 2.6. A show produced by a team whose Q was within this range was three times more likely to be a commercial success than a musical produced by a team with a score below 1.4 or above 3.2. It was also three times more likely to be lauded by the critics. “The best Broadway teams, by far, were those with a mix of relationships,” Uzzi says. “These teams had some old friends, but they also had newbies. This mixture meant that the artists could interact efficiently—they had a familiar structure to fall back on—but they also managed to incorporate some new ideas. They were comfortable with each other, but they weren’t too comfortable.”
Uzzi’s favorite example of “intermediate Q” is “West Side Story,” one of the most successful Broadway musicals ever. In 1957, the play was seen as a radical departure from Broadway conventions, both for its focus on social problems and for its extended dance scenes. The concept was dreamed up by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, and Arthur Laurents. They were all Broadway legends, which might make “West Side Story” look like a show with high Q. But the project also benefitted from a crucial injection of unknown talent, as the established artists realized that they needed a fresh lyrical voice. After an extensive search, they chose a twenty-five-year-old lyricist who had never worked on a Broadway musical before. His name was Stephen Sondheim.
- Allow conflict and questioning in your meetings. Reward those who constructively praise and criticize your ideas. Conflict is proven to be a good thing, even in a relationship. As leaders we need to be ready to not only accept but incorporate that feedback into our plans, ideas, and work processes.
- We all experience conflict and misunderstanding with co-workers, clients, customers, suppliers, and especially our superiors in the organization.
- There is never a week in any person’s life when conflict management skills are not essential to her/his well-being and progress within and outside of the organization. Don’t be afraid to address most conflict head on and be teachable in the process.
- Develop empathy for alternative viewpoints. Learning to read the “signs” of impending conflict will enable you to understand hidden issues fueling your workplace conflicts or relationship problems. The more skilled you become, the more “relationship capital” your will build up.
- Practice handling these conflicts and issues internally and those skills will enable you to experience greater success with your clients.
What are the six steps to becoming a certified corporate conflict guru?
1. Learn the language of conflict resolution. Similar to learning a foreign language, the language of conflict resolution is an acquired skill. Some have a natural aptitude for this language and others must work very hard to overcome what is not natural. The natural person is selfish and driven for purposes only known to them. The peacemaker is open to take time to listen, understand the issues, and move her own position to adapt to the needs of the team. One example is the definition of peacemaker. Peacemakers are not weak or without backbone. They are the strongest individuals with the highest levels of emotional intelligence.
2. Recognize the conflict. You can begin to resolve conflict by first recognizing it. If you cannot see misunderstandings and team conflicts for what they are, you cannot positively address them. If someone is habitually causing or creating conflict, it is not enough to be sorry. Instigators must be taught to recognize their natural inclinations before damaging performance of the team.
3. An earnest desire to learn from the conflict. As mentioned in #2, it is not enough to recognize the conflict. A conflict resolver learns from his mistakes and compensates for any loss sustained through his error or mistake. The desire to resolve the conflict and learn to work smarter is an essential trait for any one engage is working with culturally diverse teams.
4. Acknowledging the conflict exists. Acknowledge one’s errors and mistakes in judgment. This forth step is often the most difficult since we are taught to hide our weaknesses and mistakes and push blame onto others. Becoming honest with your teammates and acknowledging your faults and miscalculations are essential to long-term improvement and progress. True honesty is admitting your own mistakes and being truly happy for the success of teammates and co-worker, especially when your boss is not watching you.
5. Be the first to offer the “olive branch”. The fifth step is a commitment to take positive action to address the conflict. Set a plan in place to resolve the conflict through face to face contact with the other party. Sometimes the act of explaining steps 1-4 will resolve an issue. However, when a large amount of damage has been done, a peacemaker may be necessary as a mediator. When you are at fault for causing the conflict, meet with the person one-on one if possible. A liar may make the truth known and correct to some degree the damage done by the lie. A gossip who has slandered the character of a teammate may make partial restitution through strenuous effort to restore the good name of the person he harmed. If by carelessness the wrongdoer has destroyed team dynamics or property, he may restore or pay back the loss. Conflict resolution requires action.
6. Demonstrate your conflict resolution skills by mentoring others in this process. There is no better way to develop conflict resolution skills than teaching it to others in your organization. Teaching these skills will help you master the process and become a certified corporate peacemaker. Practicing the steps in the process will help it become ingrained into your management style. If you commit to learn from your past conflicts and quickly resolve future problems you will have created a healthy and productive team environment. Greater profits and productivity will be the by-products of this process.