A Blog by Jonathan Low


Dec 16, 2020

How Leaders Assure Virtual Collaboration Is Not the Death of Innovation

Just as organizational leaders, institutional and venture investors have been surprised to find that productivity may be enhanced by virtual work, so they are learning that innovation and creativity may also benefit from remote collaboration. 

The reason, as both research and practical experience reveal, is that many of the behavioral obstacles posed by interpersonal interaction may be mitigated by the efficiencies enforced by distance and technology. While this is not to suggest that virtual collaboration is superior to in-person efforts, neither is it inferior. The goal, whether in large companies or startups, remains the intelligent application of human and intellectual capital to achieve optimization of outcomes. JL

Leigh Thompson reports in MIT Sloan Management Review:

Innovation is the realization of creative ideas as products and services. Mindset matters. You don’t need to collaborate in person to embrace creativity.  Group dynamics can diminish creativity by stifling voices. Virtual meetings make it impossible for more than one person to speak at once. With less pressure for constant conversational engagement, people can focus on generating ideas, (and) virtual collaboration involves less pressure to conform. Digital tools enable people to contribute ideas from a distance, without revealing authorship, mitigating insider-outsider bias. People in virtual settings are more likely to interact with participants they don’t know, boosting creativity. Virtual collaboration provides benefits to creative output many didn’t realize pre-COVID. The COVID-19 pandemic put professionals in a box — a virtual one. Overnight, managers and their teams shifted from in-person brainstorming and ideation sessions to those taking place electronically via Zoom, WebEx, and other tools. 
You might assume that major changes in how we work are taking a large toll on business creativity, in light of the loss of more spontaneous face-to-face connections and interactions. One of my most outspoken executive students — a young, data-driven manager at a technology consulting company — seemed to be making that assumption when he asked how I thought virtual work “thwarted” creative processes like those his teams engage in with their clients, such as defining problem scope, exploring solutions, prototyping, and testing. My answer surprised him: Based on research I and others have conducted over the past couple of decades, I believe that the shift to remote work actually has the potential to improve group creativity and ideation, despite diminished in-person communication. 
Scholars define creativity as the production of novel and useful ideas.2 Novel, in this context, means statistically rare and unique; useful means that some stakeholders see practical value in the ideas. In business, innovation is the realization of creative ideas as products and services. Think of the creative process like a river, starting with the upstream generation of ideas, often seemingly outlandish ones; proceeding to the testing and refinement of certain ideas midstream; and eventually moving downstream to the full development of chosen ideas. 
Virtual collaboration needn’t hinder any of that, nor is it at odds with the following well-established ideas about what drives creativity. 
Creative ability isn’t fixed or inborn. Creativity is influenced by factors under one’s control. In one study, for example, some participants were told that raw talent and ability determine creative outcomes, while others heard that factors such as motivation and persistence drive creativity.4 Both groups then completed a creativity task scored by judges who didn’t know what participants had been told. The group that believed creativity was under their control significantly outperformed the other. The conclusion from many such studies is that mindset matters. And you don’t need to collaborate in person to embrace a proactive mindset about creativity — you can do that independently, from anywhere. 
Individuals are more creative than groups. When I ask business leaders in executive workshops who is more creative, groups or individuals, almost no one chooses individuals. It’s widely believed that synergy among group members generates more creativity than individuals can. But virtually no research supports this. In fact, most studies have found that “per capita” creativity declines precipitously as group size increases.5 Group dynamics can actually diminish overall creativity by stifling certain voices while amplifying others. In contrast to in-person meetings, where people tend to engage in simultaneous cross talk, virtual meetings make it nearly impossible for more than one person to speak at once. We’re forced to focus on individual input, so it’s easier for less vocal participants to be heard than in the physical world, where they’re often drowned out. That addresses at least part of the challenge of having all voices represented and heard in creative meetings. 
Constraints spark creative thinking. Working within limits pushes us to solve problems in ways we wouldn’t if given free rein. For example, financial restrictions activate a tendency to think “big picture” and then trim down rather than follow a more organic idea-generation process that can result in a larger price tag.6 And time pressure often prods more-efficient idea generation.7 Moreover, imposing communication rules, such as “do not explain ideas,” increases creative-idea generation — and groups that are interrupted with brief breaks produce more ideas, as do those that engage in electronic brainstorming (considered more constrained than in-person free-for-alls). 
Overall, virtual meeting platforms impose more constraints on communication and collaboration than face-to-face settings. For instance, with the press of a button, virtual meeting facilitators can control the size of breakout groups and enforce time constraints; only one person can speak intelligibly at a time; nonverbal signals, particularly those below the shoulders, are diminished; “seating arrangements” are assigned by the platform, not by individuals; and visual access to others may be limited by the size of each participant’s screen. Such environmental restrictions are likely to stretch participants beyond their usual ways of thinking, boosting creativity. 
If virtual collaboration doesn’t kill creativity — and can actually boost it — how can teams maximize that upside? Here are some practical suggestions, drawn from the broad body of research on creativity and innovation. These ideas are useful for in-person collaborations, too, but given that virtual business meetings are now ubiquitous and in many organizations have replaced face-to-face conversations, we’ll focus on the benefits of these tactics for remote creativity. 
1. Prevent production blocking. As noted earlier, social scientists have long known that individuals are better than groups at creative-idea generation. Classic meta-analyses suggest that’s true regarding the quantity and quality of ideas, as do recent empirical works. Studies have carefully compared the performance of people working independently with that of interactive groups, measuring per-person productivity (typically as creative production percent, based on the volume of ideas per person) and quality of ideas (assessed by independent experts blind to participant identities and experimental hypotheses) over a fixed period. Inevitably, individuals outperform groups. 
Several social-psychological factors drive this consistent result.9 A primary one is production blocking, or anything that interferes with a person’s focus on creative-idea generation, including subtle factors.10 One is conversation itself, which involves having to listen to others politely. Working remotely requires less of this. With less pressure for constant conversational engagement in virtual communication, people can more easily focus on generating ideas. Even so, there’s still a performance aspect to virtual collaboration, with everyone’s face on display; people may expend energy managing how they come across. Take steps to minimize that source of production blocking, such as by reserving large blocks of time for individual work, away from the shared screen. 
2. Crush conformity. Excessive like-mindedness destroys creativity. Such conformity occurs when people believe that they must aim behavior at winning their group’s acceptance. Fortunately, virtual collaboration involves less pressure to conform. That’s partly because the group is less immediately present than in-person groups (yielding fewer cues about acceptance, such as eye contact only among certain members), and partly because of the online disinhibition effect, or the idea that people are more likely to express themselves and not worry about getting others to like them when interacting digitally.11 It’s true that virtual collaborators are often fully visible to one another and can’t “hide” behind text-only forms of communication like email. However, the disinhibition effect still exerts influence, since many of the politeness rituals of in-person communication, such as vocalizing agreement and engaging in small talk, are no longer present. 
3. Facilitate idea expression through brainwriting. Brainwriting is the more sophisticated cousin of brainstorming. In brainstorming, people throw out ideas in a free-for-all manner, ideally refraining from criticism; the belief is that off-the-cuff ideas might spark truly innovative ones. One problem with brainstorming is that people often self-censor out of concern about the group’s response, as I noted above regarding conformity. And even when individuals are willing to speak up, they may not get the floor, given the chaotic flurry of ideas being shared. 
Brainwriting resolves these issues through the simultaneous generation of ideas by individual group members. The group sets aside time for individuals to write down ideas; afterward, they come together to discuss them. But when it’s time to share, in-person settings still induce self-censorship and the impulse to be “too nice” in assessing others’ ideas. Virtual communication is ideal for brainwriting, because participants can anonymously contribute to a common virtual whiteboard or shared document without significant group influence. And when they meet to discuss ideas, doing so virtually helps them express their opinions more honestly (again, because of fewer group-acceptance cues). 
4. Preempt insider-outsider bias. Research suggests that people evaluate ideas from colleagues more harshly than those from outsiders, particularly competitors.12 They may feel compelled to devalue colleagues’ ideas partly because they fear that the advancement of ideas by group members will lead to their own loss of status within the organization. One solution is to anonymize ideas so that each one can be evaluated independently of its source. In a face-to-face meeting, however, this can be very difficult, especially when ideas are shared on the spot. But the same virtual-communication principle that applies to brainwriting applies here: Digital tools enable people to contribute ideas from a safer distance, without revealing authorship, thus mitigating insider-outsider bias. 
5. Promote high-construal thinking. Research indicates that low-construal thinking results in less creativity than the high-construal variety.13 Think of low- and high-construal as degrees of focus of a camera lens: Low-construal thinking, like a telephoto lens, emphasizes details; high-construal thinking, the wide-angle lens, captures the bigger picture. 
One study found that people think of more creative ideas when they believe they are interacting with someone at a greater physical distance, because this activates higher-construal thought processes (big-picture focus and abstract thinking).14 Virtual communication inherently involves the perception of greater distance than in-person interactions. You can enhance this by asking each virtual meeting participant to announce their location: “Hello, this is Juliana from Panama,” and so on. 
6. Foster diverse interactions. My research with psychology professor Hoon-Seok Choi at Sungkyunkwan University suggests that the presence of a single newcomer can stimulate group creativity, yielding a larger number and variety of ideas.15 In general, diversity enhances the creative process. Yet in a typical face-to-face meeting, people sit by their friends and colleagues, often engaging in sidebars or shared nonverbal interactions, which have the unintended consequence of promoting conformity and narrowing creative focus. In a virtual meeting, you can’t choose your seat, and having sidebar conversations is not nearly as tempting, given the shared screen and risk of accidentally messaging a private thought to everyone. Moreover, the group-breakout function defaults to sorting people randomly. These factors make it more likely that people in virtual settings will interact with participants they don’t know well, boosting creativity. 
7. Keep idea vaults and boneyards. Pre-COVID-19, many in-person brainstorming meetings were not recorded, erasing any trace of discarded ideas. That fails to maximize group output, because returning to ideas that were previously suggested increases group performance.16 Why? Silence is the biggest killer of creative-idea generation; giving voice to ideas (even old ones) spurs new insights. Luckily, chat windows, electronic whiteboards, and other virtual-collaboration tools serve as vaults and “boneyards,” memorializing sessions and making it easier to revisit previously overlooked ideas. 
None of this is to suggest that virtual communication is a cure-all for addressing creative-collaboration issues, or that managers and their teams should aim to work in their own “lighthouses” whenever possible, shunning face-to-face contact. However, virtual collaboration does provide benefits that many of us didn’t realize or pursue in pre-COVID-19 times. Our creative output may be all the better for it.


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