Meet the New Groupthink (or, Why I Love Being Introverted)

“Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.”

Yesterday The New York Times published an article called “The Rise of the New Groupthink” by Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. The article takes a close look at the extreme collaborative approach being used in office across the country, and what it is doing to our creativity.

The latest office trend has employees grouped together in large rooms with no walls, stationed together at long tables, in open spaces designed to encourage collaboration. Behind this trendy office layout is the belief that the best creativity comes from groups working together. Today’s world believes in teamwork.

“But there’s a problem with this view,” Cain writes, “Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.”

More than that, studies have shown that this open environment can make workers insecure, distracted, and even hostile. Other studies have demonstrated that this extreme distraction leads to a significant drop in productivity: in a study of more than 600 computer programmers, 62 percent of the most productive workers felt they has sufficient personal space at their offices, compared to only 19 percent of the least productive. This was more indicative of productivity than salary.

And there’s a second issue here. The team players companies like to hire because they play nicely with others are not the innovators who change and shape our world. The “most spectacularly creative people” are often introverts. Because truly unique thinking requires time to reflect and let the mind wander. Cain cites Picasso’s claim that “without great solitude, no serious work is possible.” Likewise, Newton was not the first person to have an apple dropped on his head—he was the first person to think about the incident hard enough to discover gravity.

Or, here’s a modern example: Steve Wozniak, inventor of the personal computer. Yes, he was part of a group of programmers who traded ideas, and yes, he co-founded Apple with partner Steve Jobs. But the bulk of his time was spent alone, doing the actual work of creating the invention that has completely changed how we live today.

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone,” Wozniak said.

These people “are not joiners by nature,” as Cain puts it. Groups tend to flock together, come up with the same kinds of ideas over and over, heading down a single path, like geese in migration. So sure, group brainstorming can llead to a nice long list of ideas. But that doesn’t mean you get the best ideas—it doesn’t even mean you get the most ideas. Some studies indicate just the opposite.

I can’t say I disagree with Cain’s argument. An introvert myself, trying to get by in the team-oriented creative industry (yes, my office uses the open design described above), there are times where I’m ready to pull my hair out in frustration with all the noise around me.

So should we scrap our shiny collaborative open offices and do away with the hunt for team players to fill them with? Hardly. Even if the though of it does make a small antisocial part of me leap for joy.

Because there’s another part of me that likes all those other people. And because collaboration is good for creativity too. Especially in uber-creative environments like agencies. I work with some pretty intelligent, talented people. I learn a lot from them.

And let’s be honest, being holed up by myself too much would make me want to pull my hair out, too. Even Cain concedes that “some teamwork is fine and offers a fun, stimulating, useful way to exchange ideas, manage information and build trust.” And I can’t resist pointing out that a lot of the aforementioned studies on the merits of working alone were executed by two or more researchers working together.

Like with so many things, the key seems to be balance—giving ourselves a little space for ourselves, but also living in community with our coworkers.

What does that look like?

For me, in an open office environment, it means taking my work to one of the many meeting rooms or pods set up exactly for this purpose.

Or, here’s another model: prior to Apple, Wozniak was very happy with the environment at Hewlett-Packard: each employee had his own work space, but at 10 am and 2 pm every day, coffee and donuts were wheeled in. People would emerge from their holes and come out to this common meeting ground, socialize and swap ideas. Then they went back to their separate work spaces “to get the real work done.”

What is your work environment like? How does it affect your creativity?


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