Structured Knowledge and Activities Can be a Creativity Killer, Study Finds

Fagjun | Published 2017-03-24 10:07

While structure makes information easier to digest, too much structure may turn out to be a creativity killer.

A hierarchical information structure, which organizes information into categories, can make information easier to process. It can also boost efficiency, which is why people consider it to be preferable to a flat information structure. A flat information structure, meanwhile, does not sort information into categories.

Working with a hierarchical information structure isn't necessarily a bad thing. It can, after all, help people make sense of complex information and coordinate activities well. However, if you're trying to think outside the box, abiding by a hierarchical information structure is a real creativity killer.

In a new study, researchers say that a hierarchical information structure may leave little room for creativity. The researchers define creativity in the paper as “novel and useful combination of existing information“. A hierarchical information structure is thus a creativity killer because it does not allow for cognitive flexibility.

Thinking Outside the Box

Sorting information into neat little boxes makes it harder to, well, think outside the box.
[Photo by Jesse Orrico]

To support their theory, the researchers performed three experiments in which they tested how much creativity participants can exercise in structured activities. In two of the experiments, the researchers asked participants to form sentences using a group of nouns. These nouns were both categorized and uncategorized.

In the third experiment, the researchers asked participants to construct an alien using LEGO bricks. One group of participants had to use bricks that had been organized into boxes by color or shape. The researchers did not allow this group to dump the bricks out of the boxes. The other group, meanwhile, received a simple box of bricks, which they can dump out.

According to the findings, participants who had to work within a structure did not display much creativity or cognitive flexibility. They also finished their tasks more quickly than the other group. This shows that they did not show much persistence, which is an important element in creativity.

Avoiding the Usual Creativity Killer

Managers of multi-disciplinary teams may want to take note of these findings. According to the researchers, multi-disciplinary teams tend to be less consistent when it comes to coming up with innovative ideas. This is because members of teams like this often organize information—and themselves—on the basis of their own personal expertise or functionality.

In cases like this, the researchers suggest simply putting information out there, without organizing or categorizing it. Doing so can be a creativity booster rather than a creativity killer. It encourages people to come up with their own ideas by using the available information without restrictions.

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