The idea that creativity is stimulated by combining different kinds of information has been shown to be true many times, most recently in research showing that network brokerage of different groups is most effective when there is also instability of membership. Interestingly, the simplest way to combine different kinds of information is the hardest: bringing together a diverse group of people to work as a team is sometimes good for creativity, sometimes bad, and sometimes there is no effect.
How can we make sense of this? First, we can be patient. Teams trying to be creative quickly face a difficult task that many of them will fail. Instead, looking at creative efforts over time, by multiple teams, gives clearer results. Second, separate different types of diversity. Knowledge diversity creates creativity, but many other kinds of diversity have no effect on creativity but can create discomfort and difficulty working together. Unfortunately, people get along more easily with those who look like them and talk like them, so any team of people who work together can be divided by gender, race, or nation of birth. This is the reason that team diversity often has unclear effects: those who would benefit the most from working with each other often have difficulty doing so.
Alina Lungeanu and Noshir Contractor looked at the effects of knowledge diversity and cultural diversity in teams of scientists involved in the ultimate creative task: the generation of the new scientific field of oncofertility. Creativity in science is demanding because it not only requires new ideas; the ideas also must be objectively correct. Science is stricter than art in assessing the value of creativity. Creativity in science is demanding also because it requires time; it takes many years and publications to produce useful knowledge.
So, what did they find? For scientists collaborating, knowledge diversity means that they draw on different knowledge of past research, which happens to be easily measurable. More diversity produced more creativity. Cultural diversity produced less creativity. As added evidence that difficulty working together held back collaboration, they also found that scientists were especially likely to repeat collaborations with prior collaborators and were also more likely to collaborate with friends of friends than with total strangers.
This repeats a lesson that is worth repeating because it is so often ignored. The creative spark comes from encountering different knowledge, ideas, or norms. Different forms of thinking help creativity. But to make that encounter happen, people need to open up to each other and communicate freely. That requires some level of comfort with each other, so team-building efforts may be needed when team members come from different backgrounds. So first, facilitate communication, then let the communication generate creativity.
Lungeanu, A., N.S. Contractor. 2014. The Effects of Diversity and Network Ties on Innovations: The Emergence of a New Scientific Field. American Behavioral Scientist 59(5) 548-564.
This blog is devoted to discussions of how events in the news illustrate organizational research and can be explained by organizational theory. It is only updated when I have time to spare.