Winter 2007

Power of Ideas

Igniting the Creative Spark

Prof. Barry Staw finds individualistic culture promotes innovation


Managers need look no farther than Hollywood to understand how to cultivate a more creative workforce, according to Haas School Professor Barry Staw.


"Most of the freshest ideas come from new blood," he says. "Without new blood, you'd be seeing a lot more sequels."


Unfortunately, organizations tend to hire people who fit their culture, when they should instead seek "new blood," or individuals who are different, says Staw, chairman of the Haas Organizational Behavior and Industrial Relations Group and the Lorraine Tyson Mitchell Professor in Leadership and Communication.


Staw has been studying creativity for 15 years, examining everything from charismatic leadership to how worker mood affects creativity. In his latest work, Staw investigated what type of organization is most conducive to creating innovative ideas. He hypothesized individualistic firms that focus on individual employee achievement and uniqueness are better at firing up worker creativity than are collectivistic companies that emphasize more team-based culture and corporate-wide goals.


To test the effects of individualism and collectivism on creativity, Staw and co-author Jack Goncalo of Cornell University conducted a brainstorming experiment with teams of undergraduate students. In the experiment, half of the teams were conditioned to take a collectivistic mindset, while the other half were conditioned with a more individualistic mindset. Then each group was instructed to be either creative or practical as they generated ideas about how to solve a problem. In the final phase, each group had to select the idea that they believed was either the most creative or practical.


By every measure, individualistic groups proved more creative than collectivistic groups. The individualistic groups generated more ideas, including more ideas that departed from the existing solution, and they generated more ideas that were considered novel. In fact, even when the collectivistic teams were instructed to be creative, they generated fewer, less creative ideas than groups that were more focused on independent viewpoints. Staw and Goncalo outlined their findings in an article titled "Individualism-Collectivism and Group Creativity" (Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, May 2006).


From their experimental results, Staw and Goncalo argue that the advantages of an individualistic culture may be especially important when innovation is an explicit goal. Because an individualistic culture is one that values uniqueness and encourages people to be independent from the group, a strong corporate culture can be detrimental to innovation. When everyone has to get on board and be relatively alike, there may be a serious loss of creativity.


"Diversity of ideas and perspectives is crucial for innovation," Staw says. "And nurturing individualistic perspectives may be better than having a single corporate-wide direction when it comes to innovation."

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Barry Staw

Barry Staw, Lorraine Tyson Mitchell Profess in Leadership and Communication


"Nurturing individualistic perspectives may be better than having a single corporate-wide direction when it comes to innovation."