I just read a study by my Washington University colleague, Markus Baer, and three other authors* in the latest issue of the Academy of Management Journal. They start out by citing a history of prior studies showing that when you have different groups compete to reach a goal, the effectiveness of the groups goes up. That’s because the external threat gives a group more coherence, and a greater sense of a shared goal–two of the important properties of what I call “group flow” in my book Group Genius. But no studies have ever specifically focused on group creativity as the potential outcome of competition.
They brought together groups of four undergraduate business majors and asked them to generate ideas “to make the university more attractive to students” by focusing on two areas: the transition from high school to college, and how to improve the quality of life on campus. The researchers had a panel of three graduate students rate all of the ideas for novelty and usefulness. Then they created three different competition situations, by varying the amount of the award for the best ideas ($4, $40, or $400) and the percentage of teams that would get a reward (top 50 percent, top 10 percent, only the top team).
The results: as they increased the intensity of the competition, the rated creativity of a team’s ideas increased. So it seems that a little bit of competition can actually enhance group creativity.
(Also see my post about the Netflix Prize)
*Baer, M., Leenders, R. T. A. J., Oldham, G. R., & Vadera, A. K. (2010). Win or lose the battle for creativity: The power and perils of intergroup competition. Academy of Management Journal, 53(4), 827-845.