Creative Chaos

At the ETC, the central part of the curriculum is the project course. In this course, students are in small, interdisciplinary teams, creating working artifacts and playable prototypes under direct faculty supervision. A key aspect of the program is to ensure that students have an opportunity to work with a large, diverse set of collaborators with different skills and sensibilities. Each project team, working with their project course instructor(s), must design what they are going to create, the mechanisms by which they will create it, and then actually create it.

This creative process is inherently chaotic, and often stressful, with project teams rapidly iterating on ideas and design, communicating with each other and with clients, as they develop playable prototypes.

In 2008, Dr. Laurie Weingart, the Richard M. and Margaret S. Cyert Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at the Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University, and two of her doctoral students, Gergana Todorova and Kenneth Goh, started a four-year study of ETC projects to explore if and how expertise diversity translates into innovation. In other words, do more disciplinary diverse teams create more innovative work?

Between 2008-2011 they studied 60 ETC projects, surveying the project teams 4 times each semester (at the start, 1/4s, 1/2s and finals) collecting general demographic data along with information on the design process. They supplemented these surveys with interviews and direct observations of team meetings. They also had the faculty provide independent ratings on quality and innovation of the final prototypes that the teams delivered, as well as how useful, usable and desirable they were.

After collecting all of the data, Dr. Weingart and colleagues looked at the design process of projects and how communication and conflict occurred, while also looking at how leadership and coordination arose through the process. What they discovered was that more expertise diversity led to more conflict about the task in the form of disagreements and debates, which contributed to higher quality and more innovative final deliverables that were more useful, usable and desirable.

In 2014, another of Dr. Weingart’s doctoral students, Anna Mayo, began looking through the data to see about the effects of other variables in the design process. Early indications show that having teams with more females helps with the exchange of ideas and, in turn, performance, while ethnic diversity has less of an impact. Interestingly, the type of project (client, research or pitch) doesn’t seem to matter, nor does the size of the project teams, nor which instructors a team has. Overall, the diversity of a team is important, leading to more conflict and sparking more innovative work. That said, teams that have some familiarity with each other seem to work well, yet too much familiarity can be harmful. Looking at leadership, it seems more important to be supportive and show consideration for your teammates than to be more focused on structure. Also, teams with students that have had some work experience tend to learn more. Lastly, the very act of valuing diversity has a positive impact on diverse teams. Inclusion leads to innovation.

The above is just a start on exploring the rich data set of how ETC teams work well together (or not), and we plan to continue collaborating with Dr. Weingart to learn as much as we can. What’s become apparent is that the creative process is truly a chaotic experience, and more diversity, while adding challenges, actually helps create better results. It’s collaborative innovation in practice and process. The ETC faculty are well aware that failures and conflict will most likely occur during a project, so we work to provide teams with support to best orchestrate how they learn, work and play together to create experiences that educate, engage and inspire.

In the fall of 2016, we published a short book through ETC Press that provides an overview of the ETC and our research on how diversity, inclusion and innovation are related, and also how we support these three associated ideas through our project-based curriculum. We then extrapolate from this to share some applicable best practices from the lessons we’ve been learning about the creative process and how best to support diverse teams and help them make the most of the creative chaos.

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