Increasing Creativity

I’m always on the lookout for general business news and research that seems relevant to the video game industry, and there was some good stuff in the latest issue of MIT Sloan Management Review. In particular, let me draw your attention to Is Creativity a Foreign Concept?

To summarize: a team of researchers from INSEAD and Kellogg conducted a series of tests on graduate students who had and had not lived abroad for a significant period of time (at least six months). They found that having spent time abroad increased the chances of finding innovative solutions to tricky problems. An even bigger boost was demonstrated by students who had lived abroad for at least two or three years. From the article:

These findings imply that companies can get the most out of their teams by rotating employees to new regions or by emphasizing foreign-living experiences in the hiring process. It is also likely that immersion in different cultures, not necessarily different nations, is the important factor; the more diverse the culture, the better. “If you think of culture as a continuum,” Maddux speculates, “the farther you get from your own particular culture, the more creative you’re more likely to get.”

Few industries depend on creativity to the extent that we do. So should multi-national companies like Microsoft, EA, Ubisoft (etc) consider encouraging a percentage of their employees to rotate through their foreign studios for a time? Say, for the duration of a single development project? Employees with families might be less inclined to participate in such a rotational program, but younger hires might really appreciate it. And would this come with other benefits, such as an enhanced understanding of foreign markets, increased ability to “think globally” when designing a video game, etc?

But the final question is: would the benefits (which are arguably difficult to quantify) outweigh the definite, temporary drop in productivity that would result from uprooting employees, supporting them while they adapt to new cultures and languages, etc? And to what extent are the benefits worth favoring prospective employees who have lived abroad vs. those who have not?

I don’t know the answers, but anything that might significantly increase creativity and “global thinking” is worth at least experimenting with. One more reason to be sorry that I didn’t spend a year abroad during college!

4 responses to “Increasing Creativity

  1. Let me, not having read the research, be the first to say, “well, DUH!”

    Isn’t part of finding creative answers to problems largely a matter of being able to draw from many experiences, draw parallels, and abstract problems at their root?

    Many of the worlds great discoveries & inventions were ones had by Renaissance men (and women) who were able to draw on experiences from different fields and areas of study. Living abroad just seems to me to be one more place to draw such experience from.

    Much of James Burke’s work was focused around a historical perspective of such discovery, and underlining the concern that increasing specialization in society & academia was going to increasingly rob us of such opportunity. Not too many Ben Franklin’s around anymore, right? (Know anyone running for office that spends evenings in laboratory? ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. I dunno — like Kim, I also haven’t read the article, but my knee-jerk reaction is to suggest that:

    1. People who find solutions to innovative problems are open to innovative solutions.
    2. Innovative solutions are new ideas.
    3. People who find solutions to innovative problems are open to new ideas.


    4. Traveling to new countries provides new ideas.
    5. People who find solutions to innovative problems are open to traveling to new countries.

    It’s a little bit of a jump from 4 to 5, but you see where I’m going here. Isn’t it highly probable that companies who start to found programs to send stodgy employees to foreign countries will wind up with nothing more than stodgy employees with tacky souvenirs in their cubicles? I’m inclined to suspect that the common element isn’t having traveled to foreign countries, but having really *wanted* to go to the foreign countries in the first place.

    Oh, and FWIW, I spent my junior year at the University of Exeter in England, and from there went to Italy and France… ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Before I say anything else: people who have strong opinions about the article, but confess to not having read it, should probably read it.  ๐Ÿ˜‰

  4. Is it me or does it presume that Americans are the ones that need to be more creative? Does the same study hold true for the Mercedes manager that needs to work in Detroit for a bit of creativity boost?

    Its still an interesting idea. My brother is an INSEAD grad who works for his small American consulting company in Prague. So it is a marketable career move idea.

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