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Is a collectivist culture better for innovation?

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Is a collectivist culture better for innovation?

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I’ve written previously about the role culture plays in social behaviors at work.  By this I don’t just mean the culture of your organization, but the culture of the country that you operate in.

The posts have been based on the fantastic work of Geert Hofstede.  He outlined the power dimension scale that highlighted the various ways cultures tend to treat things like inequality, respect, authority and so on.  If you look at the characteristics, it would appear more likely that an innovative business would emerge in a small power distance culture.

A recent study has explored this issue further and set out to determine the role our culture (both in terms of organization and society) plays in our creativity levels.

The study, conducted by Canadian researcher Gad Saad from Concordia University, looked at the creative habits of employees from a collectivist society (Taiwan) and a more individualistic one (Canada).

It emerged that those employees from the individualistic (ie small power distance) societies were much better at generating ideas than their collectivist peers.  Interestingly however, the quality of ideas produced by both groups were certainly comparable, just the quantity differed.

“Brainstorming is often used as a proxy for creativity, so we decided to conduct brainstorming tasks using culturally neutral stimuli in Taiwan and in Canada,” Saad says.

Participants in the study were asked to brainstorm ideas in a group setting (ugh), and their progress measured along five data points:

  1. The number of generated ideas
  2. The quality of the ideas, as evaluated by independent judges
  3. The number of uttered negative statements within the brainstorming groups, such as “This is a dumb idea that will fail.”
  4. The valence of the negative statements — “This is the all-time dumbest idea” has a stronger negative connotation than “This idea is rather banal.”
  5. The confidence level exhibited by group members when asked to evaluate their performance in comparison to other teams.

“The study largely supported our hypotheses,” Saad says. “We found that the individualists came up with many more ideas. They also uttered more negative statements — and those statements were more strongly negative. The Canadian group also displayed greater overconfidence than their Taiwanese counterparts.”

Quality vs quantity

Now, suffice to say, I’d argue that ideas in themselves are a pretty poor proxy for innovation, and the implementation of ideas is a much more valid metric to use.

A reasonable proxy for the successful implementation of ideas might be their relative quality, and here, it emerged that the Taiwanese participants actually produced better quality ideas than their Canadian peers.

“This is in line with another important cultural trait that some collectivist societies are known to possess — namely being more reflective as compared to action-oriented, having the reflex to think hard prior to committing to a course of action,” Saad says.

I’ve written before that ideas are largely useless until/unless they’re implemented, so maybe we should be a bit less harsh on our colleagues from collectivist cultures when it comes to innovation.  They may well have the right approach after all.

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