I recently came across this article in the New York Times on a study, led by evolutionary behavioral scientist Dr. Gad Saad, that examines the role of culture in creativity, and specifically compares Canadian and Taiwanese residents in a brainstorming exercise. I was intrigued by the results, and see a connection to how we at Ideas To Go work to create a culture and atmosphere of creativity.

Read on for an excerpt, with my thoughts below:

The experiment pitted a so-called “individualist” culture that prizes free thinking and personal expression (Canada) against a collectivist culture that emphasizes humility and group harmony (Taiwan). [...]

About 300 university students in Canada and Taiwan participated in the brainstorming exercises. To keep the experiment culturally neutral, the researchers chose somewhat surreal prompts that participants were not likely to have thought about beforehand. These included: “How would you attract tourists to an underwater city?” or “What would be the practical benefits of a second thumb?”

The students were separated into groups of four, and encouraged to brainstorm ideas. The researchers’ main hypothesis — that individualist cultures would generate more ideas — proved correct. On average, the Canadian teams produced twice as many ideas as the teams from Taiwan. The Canadian participants were also more confident about their own suggestions, and more negative about those of their peers.

The atmosphere was different inside the Taiwanese teams. Participants suggested fewer ideas and seemed reluctant to criticize those made by other team members. “In the collectivist group dynamic, you don’t want to stick out,” Dr. Saad said. “You want to create harmony.” What the Taiwanese groups lacked in quantity they made up for in quality, however, scoring slightly higher marks in originality than the Canadian teams.

It seems to me that one contributing factor was that the Canadians (per the article) were more likely to show negative reactions to the ideas of their peers. So while the Taiwanese may have come up with fewer ideas, and may have been lower on other measures, they came up with more original ideas. They were in an environment that was less likely to inhibit their creativity because they were more comfortable sharing ideas, as they were not going to be hit with a negative or "Yes, But" response—as in:

  • “Yes, but we’ve already tried that.” 
  • “Yes, but it costs too much.”
  • “Yes, but we would never do that.”

This demonstrates the importance of atmosphere when ideating. In our projects at Ideas To Go, we work to create that accepting and comfortable "culture of creativity" in many waysprimarily by training all participants in Forness® thinking, a technique that prevents people from shooting down ideas outright. Rather, it focuses on what is valuable about an idea so that participants are encouraged and able to move toward a solution, instead of toward a dead end. We have found this to be an effective way to generate original ideas—just as the Taiwanese did.

Click to read the entire article and view the results of the study.

Beth Storz is President and Innovation Process Consultant at Ideas To Go, an innovation agency that works with Fortune 500 companies in ideation and concept development to incorporate the voice of the consumer.

©2015 Ideas To Go, Inc. All rights reserved.

Beth Storz

Beth Storz is President and Innovation Process Facilitator at Ideas To Go. She co-authored the book, "Outsmart Your Instincts: How the Behavioral Innovation™ Approach Drives Your Company Forward." Beth has been a guest on many innovation podcasts and her work has been featured in media outlets such as HuffPost and Fortune. Beth holds a BS in Business Management from Cornell University and a MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business, and has worked in brand management at some of the premier consumer packaged goods companies—including Unilever, Kraft and Nabisco. Since joining Ideas To Go, Beth has established herself as a leader in the Innovation landscape and designed and facilitated projects for hundreds of companies—from CPG to financial services to pharmaceuticals.