Necessity may be the mother of personal invention, but thinking about others can lead to more creative and useful ideas, according to new research.
The findings have important implications for employee management as well as personal brainstorming, said Adam Grant, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
"People who focus on others tend to be more creative than those who are just out for themselves, because focusing on others forces you to consider a wider range of perspectives," said Prof. Grant, who conducted the study with doctoral student James Berry of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The findings were based on a series of experiments. In one, 90 security officers at a military base were asked what motivated them on the job. In another field study, 111 employees of a water treatment plant answered questions that probed the extent to which they were motivated by personal reasons ("because I enjoy the work" or "because it's fun") and to what extent they thought about their effect on others ("because I want to help others through my work" or "because I care about benefiting others through my work").
In a third study, 100 students were asked to generate ideas for helping a rock band bring in more revenue. Some were told the band was doing well and was just looking for input. The others were given a more human motivation by being told the band was in dire financial straits and its members needed immediate creative ideas to restore their record sales and feed their families.
Supervisors and industry experts were then asked to evaluate the ideas generated by the respondents over the following months. Those whose responses indicated they were more concerned for others in their generation of ideas were consistently rated as having more novel and useful ideas than those who were in it for themselves.
"By looking at potential solutions from different perspectives, you not only get a broader and more comprehensive view of possibilities, but you also consider what options would be most effective for everyone concerned," the researchers concluded in the study, which appears in the current Academy of Management Journal.
For individuals, the implication is that you can be more creative if you start with a perspective of who will benefit. "When you are trying to be creative, and you are only focusing on what you find interesting to you, that doesn't necessarily translate into a product or service that has value to a wide range of audiences," Prof. Grant said.
"What you want to do is maximize the novelty of your connections. To do that you should really think seriously about the needs of people both inside and outside the organization and how they could benefit from your contribution."
The message for managers is that they should aim to give employees more exposure to the groups that benefit from their ideas, "whether that is getting them involved in discussions with people in other departments, sitting in on customer focus groups, or having exposure to clients and end users that they might not normally see in the course of their work," Prof. Grant said.
This approach is becoming more common in large industries, which encourage employees to work in cross-functional teams. He cited such examples as Microsoft Corp., which encourages software developers to observe focus groups in which users test new programs; and annual parties of a medical technology company, in which employees meet patients whose lives have been improved by their products.
"At the end of the day, not only will more people benefit from the creativity," he suggested, "but there will likely be more personal reward by developing ideas that are valuable for the future of the organization."
In another study, accepted for future publication in the Academy of Management Journal, Prof. Grant found that a social focus enhances the effect of leadership, much as it strengthens the effect of intrinsic motivation.
That study, which followed 329 federal employees, found that strong, visionary leadership from their supervisors most often translated into superior job performance when the workers interacted extensively with people affected by their work, such as customers or ordinary citizens. In contrast, when outside contact was low, the effect of inspiring leadership on the employees' performance was significantly weaker.