Strong Ties and Creativity

If you look for help on how to be more creative, the standard advise is to combine existing knowledge, tools, programs – you name it – in a new way. That’s what Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue in The Second Machine Age. But the same message is taught by Frans Johnsson in The Medici Effect. If you have ever participated in an experiment about creativity, chances are good you answered the following question “List all the uses for a brick”. The answers you provide are evaluated based on fluency (i.e., the amount of ideas that have a common characteristics. For example “hit a nail, defend yourself, break open a box”) and flexibility (i.e., the number of ideas that do not have a common characteristics. For example “hit a nail, keep your papers in place, phone stand, art object”). The point behind creative ideas is the same creative ideas are the combination of old to make something new.

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In “The strength of weak ties I described how weak ties, people with whom you don’t interact often, can help you become more creative by providing new perspectives or new knowledge. However, that might create the impression that when you want to be innovative you need weak contacts and not strong contacts. However, being innovative is a bit more complicated.

Strong contacts are also important for innovations.

For example Gina Dokko, together with colleagues , looked at how new knowledge, knowledge brought in from the “outside”, gets integrated in teams working in R&D divisions. This new knowledge is brought in through ‘
boundary-spanners, individuals who have access to outside groups by knowing members of these outside groups. The researchers have collected information about these aspects:

  • Social Identity: The strength of two types of social identity were investigated. The identity with their R&D team (team identity), and the identity with the division (division identity). By identifying with a group, individuals adopt the behaviors and norms accepted by the group, and hence reject the behaviors and norms of other groups as ‘weird’. Consequently, everything that is not part of your group is weird. The stronger someone identifies with a group, the more this person adheres to the behaviors and norms of that group.
  • Frequency of contact with non-team members: In addition, they also asked members to indicate ‘external contacts’ (i.e., a person in the R&D division who is not in their team but who is important for their professional activity), and how easy it is to generate creative insights with those external contacts. For each dyad, the ‘network proportion’ was calculated, measuring the proportion of interaction in this dyad in relation to the aggregated level of interaction in the focal’s person network.

The results show that stronger team identity, leads to less creative ideas. Bluntly said, team identity can trap you in a ‘team bubble’. The strength of employees identification with the division had a positive impact on creative output, as these employees had a broader view on what is acceptable. Importantly, with increasing tie strength to external contacts, creative output increases. This even holds for employees with a strong team identity. Thus even if your identify strongly with your team, your strong external contacts will stimulate your creativity (but not your weak external contacts). The reason for this could be that stronger ties are necessary to transmit tacit knowledge, the kind of information that takes time to explain and you can’t find in textbooks.

In short, strong external ties are important to counter-act ‘cohesive’ forces that an identity can exert on individuals. The same has been shown by Aimée Kane in her study on adoption of new operation methods . She also took into account how easy it is to perceive the benefits of ‘outside knowledge’. The harder it was to demonstrate the benefits, the less chances there was that the new method was accepted. The new knowledge was also more readily accepted if there was a superordinate identity connecting the person who brought in the new knowledge with the recipient team members. This connects well with the finding on strong ties: It requires more time to explain the use and benefits of knowledge that is hard to demonstrate (i.e., tacit knowledge). This type of knowledge benefits from strong contacts or a shared identity.

While strong ties can be less successful in stimulating your creativity, if these strong connections work in a different team than you, they can help you generate new ideas. However, for this to happen you also need to identify with your team. This gives you the credibility of not using ‘weird’ ideas, knowledge, products or methods.

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