Who produces better ideas: individuals or teams?

This is a silly question: most creativity comes from a blend of individual and group work. Let's break it down together.


There is a lot of conflicting advice and opinions floating around about this topic. Success depends on getting straight when to generate ideas solo and when to collaborate, and then choosing the methods and tools that are appropriate to each setting. Another factor is time: short bursts of activity help both individuals and groups lower their perfection filters and generate more options; allowing ideas to simmer and coalesce over time helps bring them to a fully formed state that can be turned into a next step.

Commentary from the d.school


A scholar’s perspective

The “battle” between individual and group creativity is usually just the wrong question for researchers and practioners (even though it has been studied in many controlled and unrealistic experiments!). First, some tasks are impossible to do alone. Think of putting on a play or producing a movie, or flying a plane.  Or of doing anything that requires many hands or deep and varied expertise. The  right question is, “what is the best way to organize and run the group?”  Second,  the answer-- in most or many cases-- to the question of which is better, is “yes.”

Creativity usually requires a mix of individual and group creative contributions, alternating between them (like when we do focus and flare at the d.school) Even researchers who say group brainstorming “doesn’t work” have showed that a period of solo brainstorming before the group brainstorming improves the quantity and quality of ideas generated. As with many things, when you add a time dimension, rather than looking at snapshot or brief episode, the problem and solutions look different. Again, most creativity blends group and individual activities, but the challenge is how to blend them.

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Reading List


How intermittent breaks in interaction improve collective intelligence

Ethan Bernstein, Jesse Shore, David Lazer in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2018

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Our take

How alternating time alone and time together can improve group problem solving

Researchers tested three levels of social interaction in groups working to solve a problem: none, intermittent, and constant. People that engaged in intermittent interactions performed best, interspersing time together with individual work. This structure embraced the best of both worlds: increased exploration that comes from individual work, and the quality improvement that comes from exposure to others’ experience and a variety of answers.


Brainstorming groups in context: Effectiveness in a product design firm

Robert Sutton, Andrew Hargadon in Administrative Science Quarterly, 1996

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Our take

Brainstorming’s benefits: not what you might think

Group brainstorming has attracted research discourse as a tool to generate ideas. This study suggests that brainstorming has social and organizational benefits, too. Researchers conducted fieldwork at IDEO for over a year, which included: observing brainstorming sessions and team meetings, conducting structured interviews, shadowing design teams, and giving surveys. Results revealed that alongside idea generation, brainstorming supports organizational memory, skill variety, and cultivating an “attitude of wisdom.”


From Guilford to Creative Synergy: Opening the Black Box of Team Creativity

Teresa Amabile, Terri Kurtzberg in Creativity Research Journal, 2001

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Our take

Creativity is a team sport: one overview about how teams really work

Amabile and Kurtzberg explain the importance of investigating interactions with group interaction at top of mind and advocate for more research in this space. They suggest tracking the evolution of ideas from individual contribution and taking a look at how social interactions and the surrounding environment shape these ideas. They also explore the role of conflict in teams, differentiating task-based conflict, which can be productive, versus relational conflict.

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