Protecting Proprietary Secrets Can Inhibit Creativity

I’ve just read an interesting academic paper by Pamela J. Hinds at Stanford.  It’s an experimental study that seems to show that if your company asks you to protect proprietary information, you might end up being less creative.

She took 69 undergraduates and asked them to imagine they worked for a company and that their goal was to “generate novel and marketable ideas for consumer-oriented information appliances” (like a toaster with a computer screen on it).  Theiy were told they’d then share their ideas with a task force containing people from many companies.  The best ideas would get a $25 bonus payment.  Before starting the task, she gave each of them a packet with eleven pieces of information about information appliances.

Then, she split them into two groups.  Half of the students were told that of the eleven pieces of information, four of them were proprietary and could not be used in the final suggestion–because, after all, that would be shared with the task force and other companies would have people on the task force.  The other half of the students were told all the information was public and they were allowed to use all eleven pieces of information.

Of the proprietary students, the average number of ideas they generated was 10.18, and of the
public students, the average was 7.54.  That seems to suggest that working with proprietary information makes you have fewer ideas.

Prof. Hinds then had all of the ideas rated for novelty and marketability by a product design engineer, on a scale of 1 to 5.  The average creativity rating of the proprietary students’ ideas was 3.54, and for the public ideas, 3.47–not a significant difference.  Finally, she compared the single highest rated idea for each student; and it turned out that the public students’ single best idea was more creative than the proprietary students.

The results are not dramatic but they are suggestive.  Prof. Hinds concludes by discussing the reasons why this might be the case.  It could be that suppressing the proprietary information is mentally demanding, and so interferes with idea generation.  Or, it could be that students in the proprietary condition perceive the task to be more constraining, feel that they have less autonomy, and thus their motivation to create declines.  Prof. Hinds is inclined to the first explanation, but further research is needed.

Hinds, P. J.  2000. The hidden cost of keeping secrets: How protecting proprietary information can inhibit creativity.  Proceedings of the 33rd Hawaii Int’l Conference on Systems Science.

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