Your iMac, MacBook and iPod proudly wear a label: “Designed by Apple in California.”
The sentiment behind this simple statement is part of a well-established stereotype – the Western world is a hub of creativity and, perhaps, the only place where innovation and new product development happen, explained Mark Cleveland, who teaches Marketing in Western’s DAN Management and Organizational Studies program.
In contrast, he continued, Asian countries are often stereotypically regarded as the place where one idea is optimized and existing products are perfected.
“With companies going global and markets going global, we wanted to investigate this notion. Companies are starting to decentralize creative decision-making and product design, and the shifting of operations from North America to Asia, this was a good opportunity,” Cleveland said.
Together with Gad Saad and Louis Ho, both of Concordia University in Montreal, Cleveland recently published a paper, Individualism-Collectivism and the Quantity Versus Quality Dimensions of Individual and Group Creative Performance, in The Journal of Business Research. The paper compared roughly 300 undergraduate students – groups from Taiwan, a collectivist society, and from Canada, an individualistic one – looking to see if culture impacted creative output.
The most fundamental difference between cultures, Cleveland said, is the place and value of the individual.
In the West, individual achievement is valued; whereas in the East, cultural and group accomplishments are more cause for pride. It’s a relative distinction, he noted, but one worthwhile in his experiment.
Cleveland and his colleagues assessed the creativity of the students by asking them to brainstorm ideas for two culturally neutral scenarios. In one, the students were asked to come up with potential advantages of having an extra thumb; in another, they were asked for ways to attract tourists to an underwater city. The students worked both in groups and individually in the brainstorming sessions. Students were videotaped during their creative process. The video was then evaluated by an independent coder.
The research team then compared if students were more or less creative when working alone, versus working in a group.
Their hypothesis might seem predictable: Cleveland and his colleagues expected students from an individualistic culture (Canada) to do well on innovative thinking and expected students from a collectivist culture (Taiwan) to be less likely to show out-of-the-box thinking as not to stand out from the group.
“(We found) people working independently were more productive in generating ideas, overall,” Cleveland said.
“With respect to individualism versus collectivism, we thought individuals (from Canada) would be more likely to express themselves, would be less concerned about criticisms, would be more focused on individual achievement, more likely to generate more ideas and higher quality ideas. They were more productive, but the ideas were of lesser quality than the collectivist ideas.
“That goes against what we hypothesized.”
The reason for this, Cleveland explained, is students with a collectivist ethos were focusing heavily on reflecting before doing, while individualistic Canadian students were focused on generating as many ideas as possible, no matter how good or bad they may have been.
Canadian students exhibited more criticisms of one another’s ideas, also, while Taiwanese students were more reluctant to dish out criticism, doing so in a muted manner.
In terms of generating ideas, in terms of quantity of ideas, research showed members of the individualistic society generated more ideas, Cleveland said. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they were better ideas.
What this means is a collectivist culture can be as, if not more, creative than an individualistic culture.
“Sure, you’re more likely to come up with a great idea if you generate a lot of them. But it could be more difficult to sift through this set of ideas, and we may identify the wrong idea because we didn’t really spend a lot of time reflecting on it,” Cleveland explained.
“So, there could be benefit to more consensus decision-making (between the East and West). There can be benefits in decision-making in collectivistic countries. And we can see whether we should try to decentralize some decision-making to gain benefit from more collectivist ways of thinking,” he said.