Keeping the Spark

Crazy Thinking
How the most creative ideas get generated and selected


Vol. 11 No. 6
May 2009

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Keeping the Spark
The challenges of staying creative over an academic career

Podcasts: The Challenges of Staying Creative: Stories from Emory

The Center for Faculty Development and Excellence

“When people are willing to get ‘off track,’ that is when I see them at their most creative. When they stop worrying about traditional modes of recognition, they tend to be far more spontaneous.”

“I‘m quite happy to work on a project for a number of years and have it simply not realize itself . . . because I know there are other things that will come to fruition.”

“Having a community of scholars you relate to is important to creativity and important to grooming people to be creative thinkers.”

Show Up and Get to Work
Time, solitude, and creative breakthroughs

On Becoming a Scientist-Advocate
Creative new possibilities for approaching and teaching science

Crazy Thinking
How the most creative ideas get generated and selected


Several years ago, Russell Coff, associate professor of organization and management, began conducting a class exercise designed to illustrate the relationship between creativity and competitive advantage. He broke students into small groups and set a cup of red Georgia clay before each. Their task was to brainstorm as many ideas as they could for commercial uses of the common material then select the most promising proposal. The common wisdom about brainstorming holds that the more numerous unique ideas a group produces, the greater the likelihood that the chosen solution will also be the most creative one. But that’s not what happened at all.

The ideas have ranged from the mundane—pottery, cosmetics, and building materials (uninspired but viable)—to the wacky—clay spray for personal defense or filler to elevate New Orleans (certainly novel but not viable). Among the few that have qualified as both novel and viable—thus meeting the definition of creativity in this context—were clay pizza ovens. The concept behind the exercise is that the most frequently conceived product ideas are the least original and therefore would face greater competition, while innovative ones would stand apart. “You can see how you might relate creativity to the ability to be successful in the marketplace,” says Coff.

Over time, though, Coff noticed that the groups generating the greatest number of innovative ideas often selected unoriginal alternatives, such as pottery and cosmetics.

“I was perplexed,” he says. “The groups that selected the more creative possibilities at the end were those that had a small to medium number of ideas.” It suggested that there was something different, even contradictory, between the goings-on during the idea generation phase and the idea selection phase of the process. And though there’s plenty of literature on brainstorming and plenty on idea selection, scant research considers the interplay of the two.

The incongruity led him to turn the class exercise into formal research involving 187 students in 38 groups over two years. Coff teamed with Emory colleague Jill Perry-Smith, assistant professor of organization and management, whose major research interests include creativity. Their findings confirmed the idea that “generation and selection require distinct processes such that success at one might not indicate success at the other,” and that “many groups may leave their most creative ideas on the table.”

Further, a crucial factor in determining a group’s success in each phase was its collective mood, which they measured by averaging the self-described moods of individual participants. Groups whose mood gauged as cheerful enthusiasm, a so-called “activated-pleasant” state, excelled at generating novel ideas. But an “unactivated-pleasant” mood state, characterized as calm, relaxed, and positive, though not drowsy or bored, was most conducive for selecting the most novel solutions from among the options. Further, the viability of the selected idea was greater in groups maintaining both pleasant and unpleasant moods simultaneously—a combination of cheerful enthusiasm and mild irritability. “Negative mood states signal all is not well, causing individuals to critically evaluate problems, not settle for the first available or conventional alternative,” the investigators wrote. Viability requires a critical element, a negative energy, that novelty doesn’t.

Examining idea selection is more than just an appealing thought experiment. In the business world, some well-known cautionary tales illustrate the consequences of setting good ideas adrift. One of the most legendary occurred in the early 1980s, when Xerox’s Palo Alto research center developed, and then largely abandoned, products such as the computer mouse, the graphical user interface, and “almost everything tied to modern personal computers,” says Coff. “They had that capability before anyone.” Then one day a young entrepreneur named Steve Jobs, along with engineers from his fledgling company, Apple, visited the center (which Xerox agreed to in exchange for Apple stock) and very much liked what they saw. There’s no telling how many other such failures have occurred.

A web of ideas

Another salient variable in creative problem solving turns out to be the structure of social networks. Groups with closer relationships among its members facilitate convergent ways of thinking, says Coff. That’s not desirable in the idea generation phase, where imaginations are encouraged to run free. But the more weak ties there are in a group, the greater the chances of getting a broader set of solutions.

In her own research, Perry-Smith has found generally that individuals who tend to maintain numerous but weaker relationships are more creative than those who cultivate few but closer relationships. “Stronger relationships can be constraining in some cases, whereas weaker relationships, in which individuals don’t know each other as well or whose bonds aren’t as strong,” spark creativity, Perry-Smith says. Several possibilities may explain why. In interacting with many individuals, a person encounters divergent worldviews and notions about problem solving. They’re also less likely to reflexively reach conclusions consistent with one or two contacts who carry disproportionate influence.

“If your network is represented by different social circles and ways of thinking, you have to think autonomously, and in doing that you may have to reconcile a variety of different perspectives,” says Perry-Smith.

In contrast, unwavering interaction with a tight-knit cluster reinforces deep-rooted habits in a reassuring echo chamber, confirms intellectual prejudices, and insulates clashing beliefs. It’s comfortable but not particularly helpful for solving problems. “Our friends tend to know our friends, so we have much tighter, cohesive subgroups that end up limiting the extent that we think beyond our typical ways of thinking,” she adds.

The pattern, says Perry-Smith, pertains to creative pursuits in many contexts, not just the task at hand. “It’s much more about affecting cognitively the way people approach problems, so that the approach is something they are more likely to apply across other situations.”

Creativity in academe

Ultimately the goal of academics is to say something that hasn’t been said before or to show that something that was said is wrong, Coff says. “That’s the essence of what we do, and it means that being successful means being able to see the world differently.” So applying the social perspective of creativity to a place like Emory seems a natural extension. Perry-Smith says that an academic researcher who interacts chiefly with colleagues in his or her own department, versus someone who has built a lot of relationships in other departments across the university, is in a parallel situation with someone in the business world who functions within a restricted social-professional network.

At a university, perhaps more than in any other institution, opportunities abound to simultaneously hear new ideas and establish the kinds of peripheral relationships that Perry-Smith believes can kindle creative fires. Attending talks around campus in various departments is an obvious way to do both, but there are reasons it doesn’t happen often enough. Just as in so many professions, college faculty are wrapped up with the immediate demands of their own work—teaching, research, grant proposals, committees, you name it —leaving little time or inclination for marginal pursuits. And how should, for example, a faculty member in the business school evaluate the benefit of attending a lecture in the medical school? The risk is that the benefit is nil, but the potential from improbable intersections can also stimulate exceptional creativity.

“Let’s say I attend a talk at the medical school,” says Perry-Smith. “The downside is that it takes more effort to make sense and process something when it’s so far removed. At the same time it could open up really interesting possibilities” that could carry over to one’s own work.

The interconnectedness that might exist between fields that are unrelated at least outwardly don’t need to be clearly evident for finding useful connections and practical applications. (At a recent Emory conference, “Addiction, the Brain, and Society,” the speakers included physicians, medical researchers, and social scientists, as well as historians and philosophers.) “I think the crazy ideas are the ones that have the possibility to be interesting,” says Coff. “The question is, in the academic world, under what circumstances would it not be so crazy? Ultimately if you’re able to take assumptions or beliefs about the world that others take for granted and identify contexts where they are incorrect, that’s the essence of what’s interesting in general, and certainly in science.”—S.F.