When groups are asked to think creatively the reason they frequently fail is because implicit norms constrain them in the most explicit ways. This is clearly demonstrated in a recent study carried out by Adarves-Yorno et al. (2006). They asked two groups of participants to create posters and subtly gave each group a norm about either using more words on the poster or more images.
Afterwards when they judged each others’ work, participants equated creativity with following the group norm; the ‘words’ group rated posters with more words as more creative and the ‘images’ group rated posters with more images as more creative. The unwritten rules of the group, therefore, determined what its members considered creative. In effect groups had redefined creativity as conformity.
In another part of the same experiment these results were reversed when people’s individuality rather than their group membership was emphasised. Creativity became all about being different from others and being inconsistent with group norms. When freed from the almost invisible shackles of the group, then, people suddenly remembered the dictionary definition of creativity: to transcend the orthodox.
If you want people to innovate, you need to give them the room to work things out for themselves. I have always thought that innovation works better when the innovator is tackling a problem that affects them on a regular basis, an itch that they just have to scratch. Certainly in web innovation it seems to work best that way.
How do we best enable individuals to innovate? Simply being able to think through their problems and propose solutions might be a good starting point. Innovation isn’t, after all, about massive step changes – although they do happen they are really quite rare – but about incremental improvements. If one person saves his or her department of 12 people just half an hour a week, that’s still going to add up: to 44.5 person-days per year, to be precise. Now, if you extend that to a company of 10,000 people, each saving just half an hour a week, that’s 37,000+ person-days per year.
Social media can probably achieve that simply by shifting some types of email to more appropriate platforms. Think of a what a concerted drive to help people make life easier – aka innovate – for themselves in their day to day life might achieve.