Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Value of Discomfort

The study I wrote about here--where Princeton students who struggled to read a math problem were more apt to answer it correctly than those who could easily read the same question--was a good reminder that staying just a little bit off balance often leads to harder thinking and better answers.  This can be true even if it’s the unintended result of a smudged font or a balky copy machine.  

Similarly, teachers who allow their students to listen to iPods while they study do a disservice to the student.  The intent is good--the students “seem” to work better--but studies indicate that when learners come across a difficult concept--what’s called cognitive dissonance--they tend to fly over it on the wings of their music.  Those who study in silence don’t have that crutch and are more likely to engage with the dissonance.  That momentary discomfort results in better learning.  

In its January 30, 2012 issue, The New Yorker published a piece by Jonah Lehrer called “GroupThink” that concluded that brainstorming doesn’t work.  A closer read indicates that brainstorming does indeed work, but it works a whole lot better if we eliminate its cardinal rule: No critique of ideas during the brainstorm.  In fact, when discussion, debate and push-back are allowed during a brainstorming session, the group’s results improve.

There might be a bruise or two, but it’s just another case of discomfort “messing up” our thinking in a way that leads to better learning--and in this case, better creativity.

The article in The New Yorker also highlighted a study done by Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern.  Uzzi focused on Broadway musicals, a kind of petri dish for the close collaboration required of numerous people to turn out a creative product.  Brian looked at key players like the lyricist, composer, librettist and choreographer to understand how team dynamics worked.   He studied every musical produced on Broadway between 1945 and 1989, creating a “Q” score to determine the “density of connections” for a given show.  If teams of artists had worked together on other musicals, the Q score was high.  A musical created by strangers had a low Q score.

Uzzi discovered, as we might guess, that teams with low Q scores were likely to succeed less often.  However--and this was a surprise--teams with high Q scores were also likely to succeed less often.  The first group had to struggle to find common ground, and the second was so comfortable in their common thinking that they were no longer challenged.  In both cases, creativity was stifled.

Uzzi’s conclusion was this: The team most likely to produce a hit musical had an intermediate level of social intimacy.  The most productive team had old friends and new acquaintances.  “They were comfortable with each other,” Uzzi said, “but they weren’t too comfortable.”

Some 15 years ago in the Harvard Business Review, Dorothy Leonard and Susaan Straus (“Putting Your Companies Whole Brain to Work”) identified the “comfortable clone syndrome” where managers avoid conflict to the point of hiring only sycophants.  When such companies created new-business development groups--formed entirely of employees with the same outlook and set of experiences--they "assessed every idea with an unvarying set of assumptions and analytical tools." Such groups struggled to innovate, the authors wrote, “often in vain.”  They would have far exceeded, in Uzzi’s terms, the intermediate level of social intimacy.

By way of illustration, Lehrer included in his article a memorable example identified by Uzzi.  West Side Story, one of Broadway’s most successful shows ever, was created by three legends, Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents.  Very high Q.  For that matter, very high IQ.  Looking for a fresh lyricist, however, they undertook an extensive search and came across a 25-year-old who had never before worked on a Broadway musical.  Stephen Sondheim.

The fact that Sondheim may have raised the IQ of the team notwithstanding, he lowered the Q score, and from that lucky beginning, one of the great Broadway musicals was created.

After all these years the music of West Side Story is still a pleasure to listen to--just not on an iPod while you’re studying.