Too Much Structure May Hinder Creativity

While structure is important to organizing our activities and helping us understand the world, it can be a killer of creativity, according to new research.

A new study from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management found that while most management research claims that giving structure to information makes it easier to cope with its complexity and boosts efficiency, that belief comes with a double-edged sword.

“A hierarchically organized information structure may also have a dark side,” said Yeun Joon Kim, a Ph.D. student who co-authored the paper with Dr. Chen-Bo Zhong, an associate professor of organizational behavior and human resource management at the Rotman School.

In a series of experiments, the researchers showed that participants displayed less creativity and cognitive flexibility when asked to complete tasks using categorized sets of information, compared to those asked to work with items that were not ordered in any special way.

Those in the organized information group also spent less time on their tasks, suggesting reduced persistence, a key ingredient for creativity, the researchers pointed out.

For the study, the researchers ran three experiments. In two, study participants were presented with a group of nouns that were either organized into neat categories or not, and then told to make as many sentences as they could with them.

The third experiment used LEGO bricks. Participants were asked to make an alien out of a box of bricks organized by color and shape or out of a box of unorganized bricks. Participants in the organized category also were prohibited from dumping the bricks out onto a table.

According to the researchers, the study’s findings may have applications for leaders of multi-disciplinary teams, which tend to show inconsistent rates of innovation, perhaps because team members may continue to organize their ideas according to functional similarity, area of their expertise, or discipline.

“We suggest people put their ideas randomly on a white board and then think about some of their connections,” Kim said.

The tendency to categorize information, rather than efficiency itself, is what those working in creative industries need to be most on guard about, the researchers conclude.

The study was published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Source: University of Toronto Rotman School of Management