Organized structures may boost productivity but also stifle creativity, according to a new study from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

Colorful Pebbles

Image credits Sara / Pixabay.

Keeping things tidy has obvious advantages, and this holds true for information, too. Research has shown that humans generally coordinate their activities and understand what’s going on better when dealing with structured data. The idea is that a good information structure allows us to better manipulate data, cope with complex systems, boosting out overall efficiency. That is, unless what you’re aiming for is thinking outside the box.

Inspiration from chaos


“A hierarchically organized information structure may also have a dark side,” warns Yeun Joon Kim, a PhD student who co-authored the paper with Chen-Bo Zhong, an associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resource management at the Rotman School.

The team ran three experiments to determine the relationship between information structure and creativity. In the first two, participants were given a group of nouns which were either organized into categories or left unarranged and asked to create as many sentences with them as possible. For the third, participants had to play with LEGOs. They were given either unorganized boxes of bricks or boxes with pieces organized by color and shape and asked to build an alien using the toys. Those who received organized bricks were not allowed to spill them on a table, to make sure their materials remained ‘organized’ throughout the experiment.

Participants in the organized groups showed less creativity and lower levels of cognitive flexibility compared to their peers, suggesting that highly organized or categorized systems (be they physical or informational) negatively impact these traits. They also spent less time on their task on average, suggesting “reduced persistence”, which the authors note is a key component of creativity.

These results could help managers better tailor working environments, especially for multi-disciplinary teams which tend to show inconsistent rates of innovation, the authors note. They believe this comes down to the fact that different team members may continue to organize ideas according to functional similarities, discipline, area of expertise, and other criteria.

“We suggest people put their ideas randomly on a white board and then think about some of their connections,” says Kim. “Our tendency to categorize information rather than efficiency itself is what those working in creative industries need to be most on guard about, the researchers say.”

The paper “Ideas rise from chaos: Information structure and creativity” has been published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

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