We’re more creative when we get together

There’s no arguing that technological advancements have enhanced business communication, increased productivity and provided a plethora of options for everything from sales meetings to product demonstrations to real-time training.

But are our capabilities outpacing our understanding of the impact these new ways of meeting have on overall accomplishment of objectives? It’s a question that leaders of IMEX Group, a worldwide meetings and incentive travel advocate, wanted to learn more about.

More specifically, IMEX executives were curious about the answers to four questions:

1. Does interacting face-to-face improve the number of creative ideas you have over virtual meetings?

2. Does interacting face-to-face improve the quality of the ideas you have over virtual meetings?

3. Does interacting face-to-face improve the variety of ideas you have over virtual meetings?

4. Does interacting face-to-face improve the social experience of interaction over virtual meetings?


Quantity and quality

Given that most meetings involve some discussion of thoughts, ideas or creative solutions, IMEX and the Meetology Group decided it would be worthwhile to try to understand the factors that affect idea generation and creative problem-solving. Success in these areas is fundamental to healthy organizations.

IMEX worked with Meetology psychologists at IMEX 2012 in Frankfurt, Germany last July to run tests on three groups that mimicked the three key ways that people meet - face-to-face, via video conference and via phone. They report that the findings clearly demonstrate that working together face-to-face generates more ideas, plus a marginally higher quality and a greater variety of ideas compared to undertaking the same task either on the phone or via video link.

Speaking about the initial results, consultant psychologist Dr. Paul Redford, who was instrumental in planning and managing the research, stated, “Whenever you conduct a new experiment there’s always a concern that you might not find anything of statistical significance. You hope for it, of course, but the results and the data are outside your control. So, I was genuinely surprised to find that our Meetology Laboratory experiments at IMEX produced clear, robust results. A face-to-face meeting between two people who do not know each other resulted in more creative ideas than the other two methods. The statistics show there is a significant difference in the number of creative ideas generated, a marginal but notable difference in the quality of those ideas and also a greater variety of ideas produced. These results were all the more notable given that the participants didn’t always share the same language and did not necessarily know each other before the experiment.”

A total of 104 participants took part in the study. They were all attendees at IMEX 2012, which took place over three days. Participants were selected in pairs — either known or unknown — to work together on a problem-solving exercise. Each pair of participants was scored on the number of ideas that were produced in three minutes, as well as the innovative­ness of those ideas. There was no “right” or “wrong” answer.

The participants were randomly selected to adhere to one of three conditions: communicating with their partner through video only using headsets; communicating with their partner through telephone only; sitting with their partner and working together.

Participants were randomly allocated one of three creativity tasks chosen to cover a range of creative thinking types (see sidebar). Known as the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, these tasks can be measured for quantity and quality, that is, the originality and creativity of each idea.

The results showed that, on average, the face-to-face pairs of participants generated 30 percent more ideas than the virtual pairs. Similar results were also apparent in the maximum numbers of ideas each pair generated. In face-to-face conditions, the highest number of ideas generated by any pair was 29, which was 50 percent more than the total generated under voice-only conditions and 70 percent more than were generated under video conditions.

Interestingly, measuring the positive interpersonal experience of each group revealed that the face-to-face pairs did not feel more satisfied or close than those in either of the virtual conditions. The researchers concluded that this indicates it is not the positive experience of the other that increases the idea generation in face-to-face meetings.

“These findings are very exciting for the whole industry and their implications are wide-ranging for meetings and event planners, and particularly those responsible for developing future direction and strategy,” says IMEX CEO Carina Bauer.

“These results appear to suggest that if you are a company or organization that needs to generate a high quantity of fresh, new ideas, then getting a group of staff or other people — perhaps stakeholders or customers — together in the same room will produce measurably more than other methods,” she adds.
“This is not to discredit the part that other methods can play, especially in this age of crowds-sourcing, for example. But it does suggest that if creativity or innovation is the aim, then face-to-face collaboration is more efficient and productive.”

The Meetology Group CEO Jon Bradshaw says, “The meetings industry can learn so much from the world of psychology and behavioral science. How people behave is directly related to the outcome of the meeting.”