In-person ideation is not always better than virtual ideation. There are other factors that matter as much, if not more, than location.
When research is published in a premier peer-reviewed journal like Nature, I sit up and pay attention. And, when the research relates to collaboration and innovation, I really pay attention. After all, so much of our work as knowledge management professionals is to enable better collaboration and innovation.
Virtual versus IRL
The recent article, Virtual Communication Curbs Idea Generation, reports on a carefully designed set of studies conducted in labs and in the field to test whether virtual collaborative ideation is as effective as in-person ideation. According to the study’s authors, the answer is no. After they eliminated the usual suspects (e.g., lack of familiarity, lack of trust, etc.), they were left with a physical reason why virtual ideation was not as successful. The reason was that the physical act of narrowing the visual focus to a small laptop screen had the effect of limiting creativity. This constrained the ability to free associate, which is so critical to productive ideation.
This is all very interesting and accords with what we know about the impact of hyperfocus. BUT before you order everyone back to the office — purely for the sake of collaboration and ideation, of course! — take another look at the test they ran. What they asked the test subjects to do was generate as many new ideas as they could within five minutes. This imposed a significant time constraint on the ideation process. But we have known for a long time that creative work is done best when people are relaxed rather than hyperfocused and stressed. In other words NOT when they are racing against the clock.
So while this study’s results are interesting, they were done in suboptimal conditions for creativity — regardless of whether the people involved were working together virtually or were co-located.
If you are serious about creativity, ideation, and innovation, don’t play beat the clock. Instead, try some of the following research-based approaches:
We know that the best innovation is rarely the first idea generated. Rather it usually is the result of a longer process of exploration, ideation, and refinement. This ALWAYS takes longer than the five minutes of ideation and one minute of analysis that was allotted for this study.
Remember: Ideation isn’t just about location. Stressful circumstances may yield novel approaches but they don’t always yield the best solutions. Your time is better spent creating the right conditions for fruitful creativity.
So slow down, Little Grasshopper!