Do groups really foster creativity?

We’re not done with the Yahoo story yet. Much has been said about whether workers produce more at home and whether CEO Marissa Mayer had slowed women’s progress by denying working mothers the opportunity to telecommute. That is not today’s topic.

Mayer says she wants workers to come into the office because collaboration encourages innovation. As the official memo put it, “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings.”

But is this true? Does a room full of people burst with a creative energy not available to the singleton at home? Fans of this view have studies indicating that this is so. Other studies say otherwise.

Mandated “face time” can be a major drag on efficient workers, according to some time management experts. Those able to do an eight-hour job in four hours often find themselves wasting the dead afternoon stretch watching puppy videos. They’d be better off at home doing the laundry or out playing tennis — and their employer would be no worse off.

In his book “Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours,” Robert C. Pozen writes, “Unfortunately, research suggests that corporate managers still confuse ‘face time’ with quality of results.” A senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School, Pozen holds that this makes “no sense” for those whose “contribution is not the time they spend on their work but the value they create through their knowledge.”

Creative people have active minds, and active minds may have low tolerance for being bored out of their skulls. A few software execs have speculated that some of Yahoo’s more desirable employees may refuse to commute and leave the company, while the ones who can’t find work elsewhere will hang on.

But what about the claim that interaction enhances creativity? That seems not the case for many of our most brilliant inventors.

Albert Einstein said, “I am a horse for a single harness, not cut out for tandem or teamwork … for well I know that in order to attain any definite goal, it is imperative that one person do the thinking and the commanding.”

This quote comes from Susan Cain’s interesting book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” She cites several great scientists who made their stunning breakthroughs working in solitude — among them, Charles Darwin and Marie Curie.

Stephen Wozniak, cofounder of Apple, wrote that like artists, inventors and engineers “work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee.” His advice: “Work alone. … Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

Sociologists have discovered a thing called “social loafing.” This is a phenomenon where some members of a group relax as others do the work. Also, people with strong verbal abilities and self-regard tend to dominate groups. The quiet co-worker with a brilliant idea might not get heard.

One must wonder about the serendipity factor, the notion that chance meetings with co-workers ignite new inspiration. That could be, but bolts of insight might also occur in an encounter at the post office or sandwich shop, as well.

This is not to knock collaboration. Wozniak and Jobs needed each other to found Apple. But like Wozniak, Jobs famously went off on his own solo tangents. Having officially dropped out of college, he sat in on a course in calligraphy for the heck of it. There he learned about beautiful typography, one of the bases of Apple’s success.

Would these guys have done better, cooped up in a corporate cafeteria? Possibly not.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Her email address is fharrop@projo.com

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