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Ideas rise from chaos

Datum:12 juni 2018
Auteur:Marta Wronska
Ideas rise from chaos
Ideas rise from chaos

While most people find it easier to orient themselves in an orderly rather than chaotic environment, large organizations particularly benefit from keeping their information and materials ordered and structured. Indeed, structured systems increase work efficiency on many occasions. But loosening the structure may also work wonders – especially when creative solutions are desired. Scientist explain this paradox in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Order and structure play a big role in the work environment: They can speed up the production, facilitate easy access to information and in general, prevent people from repeating their work unnecessarily. For example, preparing meals in fast-food industry is easier when all ingredients are organized in separate drawers or containers rather than placed randomly. Therefore, orderly environment especially helps when work is repetitive. However, it may be problematic when work is more complex and calls for novel solutions. The problem comes from the fact that classifying information into categories imposes a particular interpretation. For example, if we think of a “loss” in a category “career”, we may think of potential failures and associate it negatively. But when we think of “loss” in a category “health and nutrition”, we may think of weight loss, and associate it positively. Overall, keeping various interpretations open can help us in coming up with unique and atypical solutions.

This idea was further developed by Yeun Joon Kim and Chen-Bo Zhong, researchers from University of Toronto, and tested in three experiments. In the first and second experiment participants were asked to build creative sentences from the provided sets of words. Half of participants had the words presented in categories (e.g., “professions”, “clothes”, “colors”), while the other half had the words presented without categories and without any particular order. In the third experiment participants were asked to build an alien out of the LEGO bricks. Again, half of them received the bricks in small containers, order by colors and sizes; the other half received all the bricks mixed in two big containers.

It turned out that in all three experiments, participants who received information or materials in no specific order achieved higher creative performance than participants who worked on information or materials that were categorized. It is important to note that all participants received identical information or materials; the only thing that differed was the way in which the information was structured in the beginning of the task.

Order and structure – for example, information classified into categories rather than in no particular order – may facilitate work performance in many contexts, such as combining a schedule for multiple employees or planning a budget. However, this study showed that people can generate more creative ideas when they work on materials that are presented in no order or categories.

These findings suggest that when working on creative problems, employees may achieve better creative results when they are exposed to loose bits of information rather than ordered materials. Such an unrestricted set-up may help workers to interpret available data in multiple ways, analyze it from different perspectives, and arrive at non-stereotypical, creative solutions.

Marta Wronska ( is a PhD candidate at the Department of Human Resource Management & Organizational Behavior, Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Groningen. Her dissertation is about the mechanisms that influence creative performance: perception of required creativity and breadth of attention (broad or narrow lens through which people perceive the world).



Kim, Y. J., & Zhong, C. B. (2017). Ideas rise from chaos: Information structure and creativity. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 138, 15–27.