#7 from R&D Innovator Volume 1, Number 3          October 1992

How Colleagues Influence Your Creativity
by Philip H. Abelson, Ph.D.

Philip 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 unleashed.

The fabulous achievements of American scientists during World War II demonstrate that success also depends on group loyalty or cohesion.  Because 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 creativity.

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 smaller groups.

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 in others.

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 time. 

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 administration.  The 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.

2006 Winston J. Brill & Associates. All rights reserved.