A book review by: Diane Bessel, PhD, LMSW, CNM
Assistant Professor and Undergraduate Program Director (Sociology and Social Work)
Think about the various items included on your work-related to-do list. Review each item and consider which you can perform completely independently and which items require assistance from at least one other individual. Chances are the most important tasks on your to-do list require you to work with others, and the success of those endeavors depends on your ability to collaborate effectively.
The nature of business collaboration – and creative collaboration, in particular – is at the heart of this thoroughly researched yet highly accessible work of non-fiction: Creative Conspiracy. According to management expert and author Leigh Thompson, collaboration is “the art and science of combining people’s talents, skills, and knowledge in order to achieve a common goal” (p. 1). While an essential part of contemporary work life, Thompson argues that creative collaboration remains one of the most challenging tasks undertaken by professionals due, in part, to critical misunderstandings of creative problem solving processes and research.
To underscore this point, Thompson identifies a series of commonly held beliefs about creativity and links to research findings that fly in the face of conventional wisdom. She debunks several “myths” by sharing data that demonstrates that teams are typically less creative than individuals when left to their own devices; that providing specific “rules” and engaging in a stimulating environments actually lead to increases in a group’s inventiveness; and that changing a team’s membership and composition can enhance a team’s innovation. She notes that most business leaders are unable to articulate the four basic rules of brainstorming – a staple of the creative problem solving process.
Nevertheless, Thompson also suggests that when collaboration is conscious, planned, and focused on generating new or novel ideas, it can develop into a "creative conspiracy." Teams that “conspire” organize themselves, motivate their members, and combine their talents to commit creative and innovative acts. They are considered the hallmark of highly successful organizations.
In the book, Thompson reveals what she considers to be some of the major barriers to creative conspiracies including the tendency for group members to change their behavior to go along with the team (conformity); free riding or social loafing among group members; the development of a team superiority complex; the tyranny of the average (also known as regression to the mean); the tendency among group members to multi-task; and the purposeful dumbing down of participants to avoid attracting unwanted attention.
Thompson also discusses key strategies that enable teams to reach their full creative potential and maximize results. These “best practices” center on opportunities to develop a nimble and diverse team; provide appropriate leadership and motivation to members; address and ultimately transform team conflict; and set the stage for building a creative conspiracy through the development of an associated action plan.
Likewise, Thompson offers tips to address specific concerns. Her advice is practical and drawn from real-life experiences making it useful to myriad groups from start-ups to seasoned professionals. Drawing on research conducted by Paulis, Thompson argues that individuals should engage in idea-generating activities on their own before participating in brainstorming as a group. She insists that teams should never be set up just for the sake of having a team, but should only be used if one needs to draw upon a range of skills and views. She states that teams should be kept small and should be as diverse as possible.
Thompson also argues that new members should constantly be brought into the group and old ones removed, as this keeps members on their toes and working at a high level. Citing research that shows that quiet and relaxed areas are not always best when it comes to idea generation, Thompson suggests that sessions should be held in places that get the mind buzzing or run the risk of allowing members to get too comfortable.While the book could benefit from some additional examples of creative conspiracies and a discussion of their real life impact, it is, at its core, about increasing creative collaborations and has the potential to become a powerful resource for those in a position to implement these best practices. The book draws on strong empirical evidence to support the appropriate use of creative problem solving techniques including brainstorming, brain writing, and rules-based facilitation among others. This information is particularly helpful to individuals who are not trained in creative problem solving as well as those in need of a skills refresh. Many constituencies can be aided by this book including business executives, team leaders, entrepreneurs, educators, researchers, and students of creativity, in general.
Thompson, L. (2013). Creative conspiracy: The new rules of breakthrough collaboration. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.