In late 2003, Nokia released the Nokia 1100, a basic mobile phone with a clock alarm, stopwatch, calculator, and built-in flashlight, for those of us that don’t remember.  Since its release, over 250 million of the 1100s have been sold around the world, making it the best selling consumer electronics device in the world at the time. Nokia was an undeniable global leader in the cell phone industry.

26 years later, it’s hard to even find somebody who still owns one of those indestructible Nokia phones, although its memory lives on as Nokia phones achieve “meme” status on social media. What happened?

Among the factors that led to the iconic Finnish company’s downfall is its failure to innovate. While companies like Apple took massive creative risks in releasing phones that drastically altered the user experience, Nokia was afraid that big changes would alienate their users at the time. They feared innovation – and as a result, they couldn’t keep up.

And Nokia’s story is only one of the numerous companies, including Blockbuster and Toys-R-Us, whose inability and unwillingness to be innovative and creativity led to its ultimate downfall. Did you know that Blockbuster’s former CEO once passed up a chance to buy Netflix (whose revenue in 2018 was $15.79 billion) for $50 million in 2000?

Now we’re quite confident that few would disagree when we say that innovation and creativity are a “strategic necessity” (as Forbes calls it) for organizations in today’s rapidly changing world.  But to really grasp the extent of the speed of change, consider how long some of the staples of modern life have been around. The first iPhone itself was released less than 13 years ago, and apps such as Uber and Instagram were launched less than a decade ago.

In less than two decades, the way companies need to approach everything from customer service and marketing has been completely transformed. Organizations now need to embrace adaptability, innovation, and creativity in order to keep up. It’s not hard to imagine why creativity is increasingly becoming one of the most sought after skills in organizations.

So how exactly do you foster creativity in your organization? Now, given the work that we do and the fact that collaboration seems to be the new “it” strategy for generating creativity, it would be easy for us to reference the scholars that have found evidence that teams are a powerful source of creative solutions, and to tell you to utilize teams and collaboration more to maximize creativity.

But the truth is much more complicated.

As Pollack and Cabane point out in their Fast Company article, some researchers have found that individual work generates the best ideas (see Susan Cain’s Quiet), while others have found that the best breakthroughs come from the exchange of ideas in teams, which are ultimately better at solving complex problems (see Kevin Sawyer’s Group Genius). So which is it?

Turns out, the answer might be – both.

Paul Paulus from the University of Texas at Arlington and his colleagues conducted an experiment in 2015 to illustrate that we need both individual and team-based work in order to generate the most creativity.

The researchers started by having a group spend 10 minutes generating and writing down ideas together, before having each individual go off and build off those group ideas individually. They then reversed the conditions – having individuals generate ideas alone first, then bringing it to the group. They found that the group that worked under the group-to-alone condition produced 63% more ideas per person than the alone-to group condition. It seems that having individuals build off of team-generated ideas led to more creativity than the other way around.

Paulus and his associates then put some of his participants through a third condition, where the group spent 8 minutes writing down ideas individually, then met together to share those ideas for 3 minutes. They then went back to working individually, only to rejoin the group again afterwards (i.e., individual, team, individual, team). Alternating between individual work and collaborative work led to a 71% advantage in the number of ideas generated per person per minute, compared to those who only worked in a team context. Having individuals generate ideas in a systematic way that included both solo and collaborative time seems to have generated the most creative ideas.

This research underscores the key point that organizations need to allow employees to work both individually and within a team context in order to maximize creative output.

In the next several posts, we’ll be narrowing in on the team piece of the equation, and explore what the research tells us about building highly creative teams. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, check out the Art of Team program, a unique team building experience designed to ignite your team’s creative spark, and address the need for creativity in today’s organizations. If you’re looking for a Training Workshop that can address your team’s unique needs, and guide them towards high performance collaboration and creativity, check out the High Performance Teamwork program!