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 vital aspect of the program is ensuring that students can work with diverse collaborators with different skills and sensibilities. Each project team, working with their project course instructor(s), must design what they will create, the mechanisms by which they will produce 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 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 four times each semester (at the start, 1/4s, 1/2s, and finals), collecting general demographic data and 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 the quality and innovation of the final prototypes that the teams delivered and how useful, usable, and desirable they were.

After collecting all of the data, Dr. Weingart and colleagues looked at the design process of projects, how communication and conflict occurred, and how leadership and coordination arose through the process. They discovered that more expertise diversity led to more disputes 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 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 essential, leading to more conflict and sparking more innovative work. That said, teams with 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 with 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 possible. 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 knows that failures and conflict will most likely occur during a project, so we support teams to orchestrate best 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, our research on how diversity, inclusion, and innovation are related, and 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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