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The Whyfiles presents: 'The Science of Creativity'
Origninal photo from © Library of Congress

28 APRIL 2005

You can't buy it in a bottle, although many have tried. You can't buy creativity in a pill, but ditto. But can you improve a team's creativity by getting people with the right balance of freshness and experience?

b/w photo of 2 men stepping up to entrance on a TWA airplaneCertainly, many researchers have tried to figure out the key to boosting creativity. "There's been a lot of interest in the management and business literature," says Luis Amaral, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern University, "trying to understand what makes a winning team."

George and Ira Gershwin leave for Hollywood from Newark Airport on Aug. 10, 1936. Photo: Library of Congress

Amaral became interested in creativity as part of his study of complex systems. Biology, he says, is a "system in which you have these parts that are self-organized, they interact and form something that did not exist before. Cells are forming tissues, then organisms. Or you have researchers that form a community to develop a body of knowledge that did not exist before."

Much of the research into creativity, he says, has rightly focused on diversity. But people who are diverse in racial, cultural or gender terms may actually adopt the same approach to a problem. "You see someone who seems to be very different, but after working in the same environment, they might start thinking about the problem in exactly the same way, since their professional experience is very similar."

Art and science
In a study that looked at success in four fields of science, and in Broadway musicals, Amaral, together with collaborators Roger Guimera, Brian Uzzi and Jarrett Spiro, found that the background of the co-workers mattered.

a selection of scientific journalsUsing data on scientists who published in economics, ecology, astronomy and social psychology, and a long-term record of the people who composed, wrote and directed Broadway musicals, the researchers focused on two areas -- how many newcomers were on the team, and how often collaborators returned to work with the same people.

Creativity in science and musicals seems to respond to some of the same social forces.

In both science and Broadway, Amaral says, the teams "looked very similar in terms of experience. A little over half of the people in the teams were persons with experience, they were already in the field."

black and white 'I Got Rhythm Variations' posterWhen he looked at the collaborators, one-quarter of them were working together for the first time. In contrast, Amaral says, "Teams doing bad quality work have a tendency to repeat the collaboration over and over again." (These teams were identified by looking at authors of articles low-quality scientific journals.)

Original cover art for "I Got Rhythm," one of many influential Gershwin compositions. Photo: Library of Congress

And even though great collaborations on Broadway have included long-time collaborators like Richard Rodgers and Moss Hart, or George and Ira Gershwin, Amaral says they probably worked with newcomers as choreographers or directors.

The most successful teams, Amaral found, were those that brought in fresh ideas. "Essentially, they are able to get people with knowledge, expertise that is complementary, are able to collaborate with people they have not collaborated with yet. It's an opportunity for something new to be created. If you've been tackling a problem from the same perspective for 10 years, it's very difficult to come up with something new."

On a scientific team, it helps to be familiar, but not too familiar.Practical teamwork
The idea that diversity can boost creativity is not new, but the new study did help quantify the level of diversity -- in the form of old and new collaborators -- that's most helpful. The trick, Amaral says, is balancing novelty with experience. "You could imagine having the same five collaborators over and over again, but we found that is bad, the team would get stale. Ideas have a tendency to get calcified, you start thinking the same way, you need someone to bring a spark to the discussion, to propose something new."

But don't go overboard. "It's important to have established people because you can trust them," Amaral says. " People naturally prefer to collaborate with someone they have collaborated with before. They know they will finish something, have something to show at end of collaboration."

-- David Tenenbaum

Team Assembly Mechanisms Determine Collaboration Network Structure and Team Performance, by R. Guimera et al, Science, Apr. 29, 2005.

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