from R&D Innovator Volume 1, Number 3
How Colleagues Influence Your Creativity
Philip H. Abelson, Ph.D.
H. Abelson was editor of Science for 23 years.
Currently, he is deputy editor for engineering and applied
science. His scientific career spans geochemistry, physics, and
molecular biology. Dr.
Abelson has been awarded both the National Medal of Science and
the Public Welfare Medal.
Creativity is necessarily a product of a single mind.
Although a creative act may be stimulated by others, one
human brain must always synthesize facts or impressions.
Much of the work done in research laboratories, however,
requires group effort, so it makes sense to evaluate how
colleagues improve or impede the creativity of individuals.
If you have worked in a group, you've probably already seen how it
can hamper creativity. Animosities
arise, adrenaline starts flowing, and before you know it, group
members are thinking about combat instead of constructive
dialogue. When it
comes to behavior, we are often not that far removed from animals,
and just as dogs jealously guard their turf, humans zealously
protect theirs. Two
people with similar capabilities, training, and equipment working
on the same problem can become obsessed by rivalry.
A Matter of Group Style
Team members work more amicably when they bring unique
backgrounds, capacities, or attitudes to the group.
If we reduce turf-consciousness and promote a spirit of
mutual assistance, the creativity of such a group can be
The fabulous achievements of American scientists during World War
II demonstrate that success also depends on group loyalty or
members recognized the goals as vital and energies were focused on
clear objectives, egotism was suppressed.
These groups were able to achieve in a few short years what
otherwise would have taken much longer.
Groups also become more cohesive when they have the prospect of
profiting from success. Recently, some biotechnology firms have
made exemplary achievements, prodded by the benefits they would
receive from reaching their research goals.
Industrial research laboratories have begun putting such concepts
of group dynamics into practice.
When developing a new product, they assemble a team and
assign it cost, production and marketing goals.
These teams may be highly interdisciplinary--with
scientists specializing, for example, in theory, materials, and
process engineering. Sometimes
marketing people are included. The team spirit that often develops nourishes imagination and
Another factor is the size of a research group.
Although the optimum size depends on many things, five or
six is often a good one. Such
groups can communicate easily, but assuming members have diverse
backgrounds, there is potential for mutual education and
assistance. As the
group gets bigger, friction increases, internal communication
becomes tougher, and talkative people tend to dominate
conversations, whether they have anything to say or not.
A few large laboratories have succeeded at innovation, but
in terms of creativity per person, I'd bet history has favored the
A Matter of Personal Style
Personal style is another factor in creativity.
An enthusiastic team member is a blessing.
Many of the most constructive events in this world have
been helped by enthusiasts; not only do they achieve on their own,
but their warmth also stimulates excitement and positive reactions
Dedicated pessimists are another matter.
Even if their logic is impeccable, they are to be avoided
for their ability to smother creativity.
To the same outbound boat I'd consign chronic complainers
and vicious gossips.
Some people are natural-born loners, whose creativity can be
stifled if forced into a group.
If they can be creative without outside stimuli, I'd allow
them to work that way. Unfortunately,
both the cost of equipment and the complexity of modern problems
indicate the need for teamwork, not individual effort.
Although outside stimulation can promote creativity, there's such
a thing as too much of a good thing.
Creative people are often better left alone, immersed in
problems for as long as a week at a stretch.
Shorter periods and interruptions can reduce or destroy a
researcher's effectiveness. People with potential for significant creativity, in
particular, should be sheltered from interruptions.
Scientist or Paper-pusher?
Unfortunately, when a young scientist begins getting credit for
good work, the "reward" is often a heavier cargo of
administrative duties, an irksome burden that can steal thinking
Administrative duties, committee assignments, and paperwork can
also pose insoluble problems, distort the value system of the
research lab, and promote another animal instinct: obsession with
the pecking order. My
advice: Fervently guard against interruptions, or you will see
your creativity destroyed piecemeal.
In research, an optimum set of values would honor, above all else,
creative solutions to specific goals.
Managers who glorify nitpicking administration as the
highest form of human activity may be ingenious at assigning
meaningless tasks for their underlings. If they are more concerned with such anti-creative factors as
the chain of command, managers will give a perverse signal to the
people who invent ideas.
Thus, I think it's a mistake to use scientific creativeness as a
major criterion for selecting research administrators.
Many creative people are singularly inept at
talent and drive that promote achievement in the lab may not help
managers. An egotist
who deals expertly with the inanimate world may be utterly
incompetent in the realm of human interaction.
There is no simple formula to increase creativity in the R&D
lab. Creativity is
not something that can be tapped at will, and even geniuses are
truly creative only a small fraction of the time.
You must be sensitive to what stimulates creativity and
what stifles it. You
need to be concerned with individual style and the influence of
colleagues and superiors.
My hunch is that when humans discover the best means of fostering
creativity--and I believe they will--dramatic results will ensue.