Fresh ideas and new perspectives are the lifeblood of great work. But what happens when inspiration routinely comes from the same place – people who think the same as you? Homogeny of thought can stifle originality and threaten creativity, leading to a creative echo chamber that prevents good ideas from reverberating across teams.
A new poll from Ketchum reveals that creatives are feeling more siloed than ever. Close to 60% of those surveyed felt insulated from other teams in their companies and unable to trade ideas with people outside of their immediate group. Nearly three-quarters of respondents felt that company leadership contributed to the idea bubble by shutting out junior professionals from creative decision-making, even though they were seen as most likely to propose the boldest ideas. Most tellingly, the results showed a glaring disconnect between values and action: While 72% agreed that diversity of thought is valued at their company, 85% believed that their organizations needed to do more to encourage a broader range of ideas.
It’s not just creatives who feel sealed off. In a study of workers across sixteen industries, George Mason University psychologist Todd Kashdan and Merck KGaA found that 65% of respondents thought curiosity was essential in discovering new ideas. But virtually the same percentage of workers felt unable to ask questions or challenge assumptions on the job. To that point, 84% reported that their employers encouraged curiosity, but nearly 60% said they faced barriers to it at work. The apparent contradictions revealed a double standard among management: Leaders like the concept of curiosity a lot more than the practice of it.
As I report in The Feedback Fix, there are deliberate steps companies can take to burst the creativity bubble and make sure that great ideas continue to spread across organizations:
Push the boundaries of debate. Constructive conflict can produce creative solutions. That’s what researchers found when they challenged three groups of participants to come up with a way to ease traffic congestion in San Francisco, ranked among U.S. cities as the second-worst place to drive. (Commuting delays cost riders an average of nearly six days per year in lost time.) The group that engaged in the most rigorous debate generated 25% more ideas than the other two groups combined, and continued to propose solutions even after the group was disbanded. Researchers attributed their sustained interest in creative problem-solving to a relentless debate style that forced individuals to take and defend tough positions and consider multiple points of view. Rather than derail the team’s creative efforts, debate put them on a path to success.
Make it safe to disagree. Creativity can’t thrive unless people experience “psychological safety,” a sense of confidence that their team will not embarrass, reject or punish them for speaking up. Research shows that teams that operate with psychological safety consistently deliver creative breakthroughs and report high levels of interpersonal trust. This freedom to “be yourself” around others can become a crucial differentiator in how teams perform. That’s what Google learned after the company launched an internal study of 180 functional teams to see if it could find and clone the “master gene” of high performance. After a series of trials, Google’s research analysts failed to turn up a reliably consistent pattern of high performance – what worked for one team differed sharply from another – until they used psychological safety as the litmus. It turned out that the strongest teams were also the safest. To break the creativity echo chamber, people need to be able to think and act without worrying about the social repercussions.
Build teams with rival talent. Understandably, some managers try to steer clear of conflict by forming “safe teams” made up of people who share similar backgrounds and experiences. Their sameness may hold them together, but when it comes to creating new ideas, challenging old assumptions, or testing different possibilities, it may very well keep them apart. When Nest was developing its groundbreaking thermostat, the smart-home device maker didn’t rely only on the work of its engineers. It handed the project over to a highly versatile group of user-experience experts, product managers, software developers, algorithm analysts, and marketing executives – none of whom had ever built a thermostat before. The group’s highly specialized backgrounds and expertise turned out to be a blessing in disguise: While the original model, produced by engineers, cut down utility costs, it was a cleverly designed green leaf – the digital prize created by marketers to change consumer behavior – that gave energy conservation its bragging rights. The lesson here is that teams with rival talent are more likely to surprise us with their unconventional approach to design than those who play it safe.
To be sure, leaders need to set the right conditions for creativity to flourish by understanding the strengths of their employees, designing work environments to leverage those strengths, and coaching them to build those strengths over time. But taking steps to break the creativity echo chamber seems like a good place to start. To land the next big idea, we need to listen to voices other than our own.
Joe Hirsch is the managing director of Semaca Partners, a boutique communications firm, and the bestselling author of “The Feedback Fix: Dump the Past, Embrace the Future, and Lead the Way to Change,” now available from Rowman & Littlefield.