Mixing your teams up is key to group creativity

If you keep team membership constant, people in the team are going to grow familiar, they’ll feel more comfortable, they won’t be afraid to propose ideas, and morale will rise – surely all this is a guaranteed recipe for creativity? Not according to Charlan Nemeth and Margaret Ormiston, who’ve shown that, while stable teams are judged more friendly and comfortable than newly-formed teams, the cost for failing to mix up team membership is a loss of creativity.

One hundred and sixty-four undergrads were arranged into 41 teams of 4. One member in each team just kept notes, so these were really three-person teams. First, the teams were given 15 minutes to come up with ways to boost tourism in the San Francisco Bay area or ways to decrease traffic congestion.

Next, half the teams kept the same members, while the other half of the teams were entirely mixed up, so no two people who’d worked together in the first session were placed together in the second session. The stable teams and the mixed-up teams then worked together for 15 minutes on whichever of the two problems they hadn’t tackled in the first session.

Afterwards, members of the stable teams reported feeling their groups were more creative, friendlier and more comfortable than did the members of the newly-formed teams. But crucially, it was the newly-formed teams who generated more ideas (an average of 28 ideas versus 23), and according to two independent judges their ideas were also better quality and more diverse.

“The current study underscores the theory that ‘change’ and the introduction of new perspectives are more important than comfort, belonging and friendliness for idea generation and creativity”, the researchers said. Managers should avoid the temptation to retain individuals in groups that have previously worked well together, they added. “Rather, teaming individuals who have not previously worked together may better benefit the creative process”.

Nemeth, C.J. & Ormiston, M. (2007). Creative idea generation: Harmony versus stimulation. European Journal of Social Psychology, 524-535.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Want more? Check out these from the Digest archives:
Three-person groups best for problem-solving.
Why do we still believe in group brainstorming?
New team members spark group creativity.
Be creative: don’t even think about it.
What makes a multi-disciplinary team work well?
Admit it – you love work meetings really.