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business school research

‘Some scholars believe that playing with Lego bricks helps kids, and even adults, train creativity skills. Our research suggests that is probably right,’ PhD candidate Yeun Joon Kim of Rotman says.

The Globe's latest report on research from business schools.

Lego lovers know the colourful little toy bricks have a myriad of uses, from building simple houses to full-scale cars and functioning prosthetic legs.

But could Lego be applicable to business school research, too? Yeun Joon Kim, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, certainly thinks so.

Working with Chen-Bo Zheng, a Rotman associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resource management, Mr. Kim recently used the toy blocks in a study exploring the relationship between information structure and creativity.

Specifically, the researchers were looking to test Mr. Kim's hypothesis that "ideas rise from chaos" – also the title of their paper, published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

"Some scholars believe that playing with Lego bricks helps kids, and even adults, train creativity skills. Our research suggests that is probably right," says Mr. Kim in an e-mail interview.

The idea behind the research sprang from Mr. Kim's personal experience. A former software engineer with Samsung Electronics, he found that the job of processing information (in this case software coding schemes for various cellphone models) was made easier and more efficient if it was presented in a well-organized manner (such as manuals or set specifications).

However, when he was tasked with processing information that had no hierarchical order, he found that he was better able to "think outside the box" and develop innovative ways of doing business.

"I read most of the information in random order and found that it slowed my learning, but increased my capability of combining information," he says.

Mr. Kim and Dr. Zheng ran a series of experiments to test the theory. In two, participants were given a group of nouns that were either organized into neat categories or not, and then told to make as many sentences with the words as possible.

In a third experiment, participants were asked to craft an alien out of a box of Lego bricks. The box was either organized by colour and shape or filled with random pieces.

The researchers concluded, based on the experiment results, that when presented with organized information, people are less creative and cognitive flexible than those working in random order. The people working with organized information also spent less time on their tasks, suggesting reduced persistence (considered an important ingredient in creative thought).

For employers, particularly those looking to stimulate new ideas within an organization, the study highlights an important lesson, says Mr. Kim. It's not a bad idea to organize information, "because employees, particularly newcomers, should learn organizational information and knowledge." But there is a dark side to that structure.

To stir up innovation, Mr. Kim suggests asking staff to come up with ideas on a certain issue. Those ideas can then be written on a whiteboard as they come up, with the group later encouraged to search collectively for ways to combine the information, stimulating discussion and creative thought.

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