How do multiple writers work together to produce a work superior to their individual abilities? With a great deal of struggling. Despite the idea that synergy, or combining abilities of people in groups, to produce better ideas than individuals most research on writing and other creative endeavors points in the opposite direction. Few writers enjoy creating a single work as a part of a group. Occasionally a pair of writers collaborate on a book after ironing out the details of who does what to produce a single novel. But suppose you are assigned to work with a group to come up with a plot and cast of characters for a new movie. What can you do to improve your chances of at least some modicum of success?
Brainstorming has been touted as one way for groups to multiply innovative thinking. However, group sessions produce more ideas if people spend alone time considering and conceptualizing ideas first. The best performance, as far as number and quality of ideas, occurs when there is a brief group session followed by individuals brainstorming on alone as shown by research conducted in which a whopping 23 of 24 groups produced a greater quantity of high quality original ideas when brainstorming alone, than together (Dunnet et al, 1963). In another experiment, the results of those working in isolation were consistently judged more creative. It appears as if the very presence of others decreases creative output (Shalley 1995). This may be because we are unwilling to try out new ideas and techniques that may flop in front of others.
Why does this mystique of greater creativity within teams exist despite so much evidence to the contrary? The psychological benefits of teamwork contribute to this illusion (Allen and Hecht, 2004). People with strong needs for social interaction feel more satisfied when working in a team, even if the results show lower quality ideas. People tout the benefits of being with their tribe, because inclusion in a team provides a sense of belonging. Even though these “tribes” tend to enforce similar social behavior, so that our thoughts are more restricted.
So what works if you decide to create a novel, or movie script with another writer? It helps to understand human characteristics that prevent people from effectively sharing knowledge with others. It is almost impossible to grasp what others know, or deduce what they need to know from us. Sharing of information takes time. It helps to have initial sessions that are simply for the purpose of describing what each person knows without the pressure to produce new ideas.
A larger group of writers must take the time to provide a background for what each one contributes. Clearly defining why we know what we know is another hurdle as we base knowledge on various underlying assumptions. Some people fear a loss of status if they share their knowledge and creativity. This is a legitimate concern with no easy solution. So, a facilitator who refrains from making their own contributions can help, they may openly acknowledge the contribution of others and mediate a discussion that enables a equitable contribution from various members.
Finally, choose a variety of activities to get out of the rut of group brainstorming sessions. Let the people question and critique each other’s ideas, but not each other. Alternate between group sessions and individual activities taking place away from the presence of the group for adding to the work-in-progress. Remember, simply having others around, possibly looking over your shoulder, tends to limit creativity.
It takes more time for a group to produce creative ideas for a novel or movie than it does for an individual. However, the bonus to this method is the sense of connectedness to a greater number of people. Varying viewpoints promotes the acceptance of the creative ideas–if and when the group actually produces them.