Do group discussions squelch creativity?

At work or in school, group meetings often lead to tangential discussions and a can hinder productivity

Connor Gleason / AP / File
In this Feb. 16, 2011 photo, Dr. Kevin Hart of Oakmont Regional High School and George Lane, former US Ambassador to Yemen, address current events in the Middle East and foreign relations with America, during a Great Decisions discussion group at the Forbush Public Library in Westminster, Mass. Should we be teaching this kind of group deliberation to business students?

A sure way to temporarily flag employee moral is to call an employee meeting. “What’s this about?” “I’m busy getting things done, is it really required?” Even when a meeting is for the best intentions of exploring ideas and working on problems, egos clash and time is wasted as participants go off on tangents. David Sherwin spells it out in a piece for the Atlantic; group discussions kill creativity.

Sherwin explains that while these discussions seem to bring out creativity as ideas are ping-ponged back and forth, these sessions are really social affairs where everyone loses track of time, “at the cost of surfacing everyone’s unique perspectives and voices. We risk filling the time with consensus, rather than exploring divergent, multi-disciplinary viewpoints. It is in the friction between these views that we explore new patterns of thought.”

However, as any college business major knows, group assignments are common in management and marketing courses. Business students are falling behind their peers because of, “the heavy prevalence of group assignments in business courses: the more time students spent studying in groups, the weaker their gains in the kinds of skills the C.L.A. [College Learning Assessment] measures,” writes David Glenn in the New York Times.

Glenn uses Angela D. Stanton’s marketing research course at Radford University as an example. Student teams of four or five work together throughout the semester on a series of reports. But no one student completes a paper individually. Glenn writes,

The pedagogical theory is that managers need to function in groups, so a management education without such experiences would be like medical training without a residency. While some group projects are genuinely challenging, the consensus among students and professors is that they are one of the elements of business that make it easy to skate through college.

As one expects, the division of labor emerges rapidly in these groups, with the numbers work being done by the math geek, the writing done by the English major, and so on, with the charming slacker doing no work at all.

In their book Rework, Jason Fried and David Hansson write that when operating a business, any interruptions are to be avoided, especially meetings, because they squash productivity.

So does business eduction imitate the business world, or the other way around? Either way, meetings are the bastion of bureaucrats, who are anything but creative.

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