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Expertisecentrum HRM&OB

Faculteit Economie en Bedrijfskunde
Expertisecentrum Human Resource Management & Organisational Behaviour
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Task switching can make us more creative in problem-solving

Datum:25 april 2017
Auteur:Suqing Wu
Task switching can make us more creative in problem-solving
Task switching can make us more creative in problem-solving

Most of us deal with multiple tasks in our daily work. Switching back and forth between tasks – “task switching”-- has become quite a common work style. There is real debate in science and in practice whether task switching is good or bad for job performance. Some research has shown that switching between tasks can lead to increased distraction, error-making and forgetting and other counter-productivity factors (e.g., Monsell, 2003). But recently a positive finding was reported: Task switching may in fact contribute to creative problem-solving (Lu, Akinola, & Mason, 2017). Through four experiments, the researchers found that people who switched between tasks were more creative in coming up with solutions, than those who did not.

Why would shifting between tasks stimulate creativity? The notion is that people commonly struggle to conceive creative solutions because they fixate on existing ideas and cannot think outside-the-box. Such cognitive fixation impedes people from generating flexible ideas, which in turn decreases the possibility to have creative solutions. Task switching, by contrast, frees individuals from their fixated mindset and helps people to abandon previous, unsuccessful strategies and try new approaches.

In four experiments, researchers compared between three different types of switching strategies: (1) continually alternating back and forth between two tasks, (2) switching at participants’ discretion, and (3) a midpoint-switch, that is attempting one problem-solving task for the first half of the given time, before switching to the other task for the second half. In each experiment, participants completed two creativity tasks as required. It turned out that people who switched back and forth between tasks – the first strategy - performed better in both two tasks than people who adopted the other two strategies. The researchers found out that the reason why the participants who were switching between tasks were more creative than others: this was because of the reduced cognitive fixation.

Another finding was that the majority of the participants believed that the continually switching strategy would be the least effective way to be creative. Instead, they would rather choose the discretionary-switch or midpoint-switch strategy. The findings were replicated in a later survey study on 94 school leaders. The school leaders appeared to discount the creative potential of switching tasks back and forth. These findings reveal a consistent bias in people.  

The research findings have practical meaning for managers. Sometimes it is hard for managers to design work conditions that foster employee creativity. Perhaps one intervention could be that managers encourage employees to switch between multiple tasks from time to time. We may also need to correct our bias toward task switching in problem solving task situations, and find a balance between focusing on one task and switching to free mindset for creativity.

Suqing Wu (s.wu@rug.nl) is a PhD student specialising in Team Creativity. She studies how newcomers affect team members to achieve creative outcomes and currently works on a project about role differentation in creativity processes.

 

Reference

Lu, J. G., Akinola, M., & Mason, M. F. (2017). “Switching On” creativity: Task switching can increase creativity by reducing cognitive fixation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 139, 63-75.

Monsell, S. (2003). Task switching. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(3), 134–140.