Asia Versus the United States

(I’ve just been invited to be a guest blogger on orgtheory.wordpress.com; this post also appears there.) 

Are creativity and innovation different in different societies? This is a hot topic, particularly in fast-growing Asian countries including China and Korea. China’s leaders, for example, don’t want to be the low-cost commodity provider forever; their ambition is to become as innovative as the United States is today. China and Korea were the first places where I sold foreign translation rights to my new book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. My message in that book is that creativity always comes from collaboration, not from solo individuals.

There’s plenty of research suggesting that Asian societies should be better at collaboration. Many anthropologists group the world’s societies into “individualistic” and “collectivistic” cultures. In individualistic cultures, each person is thought to be independent, and to have a unique set of internally driven personality traits that make them different from everyone else. In contrast, collectivistic cultures think of people as deeply interdependent with their group. Asian cultures tend to fall at the collectivistic extreme, and the United States tends to fall at the individualistic extreme. So the puzzle is: How could the United States be so innovative, if all innovation in fact comes from groups and collaboration? Shouldn’t Asian societies be better at fostering group genius?

I started thinking about this again last week, when I read a 2006 article by Jack A. Goncalo and Barry M. Staw called “Individualism-collectivism and group creativity.” The paper reports on an experiment with 68 groups of college students. Half of them were primed with a task that would later encourage them to behave more individualistically; the other half did a different task that brought out the collectivistic side of their nature. Then the groups did a classic brainstorming task, and the creativity of all the group’s ideas were judged by an independent panel.

The results: the individualistic groups were significantly more creative than the collectivistic groups. They generated more ideas overall, and more ideas that were judged to be highly creative. Goncalo and Staw explain this by citing a range of previous studies, for example those showing that people often conform to the majority view emerging from the group, even when they know it’s wrong; and that dissent and argumentation causes groups to solve problems more effectively.

In my book, just like Goncalo and Staw, I note the potential weaknesses of groups–conformity pressures that all too often lead to “groupthink.” And I also describe the research showing that too much cohesion makes groups less effective. I hope that their article finds a receptive audience among Asian readers. But in the U.S., our companies need a different message, because maximum innovation emerges when you have a difficult-to-find balance of individualistic and collectivistic values. If everyone is being selfish and stubborn–highly individualistic, in other words–then that tends to make groups less creative, and to make companies less innovative. Many U.S. companies still foster a culture that goes too far to the individualistic extreme. The recent emphasis on teams and collaboration is just what these companies need.

The wrong message to take away from Goncalo and Staw’s research is that the U.S. will always be more innovative than collectivistic, Asian cultures. Optimum innovation will emerge from companies that fall somewhere in between; and we’re all still working hard to discover what that ideal organizational culture looks like.

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