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Creative Synthesis: Exploring the Process of Extraordinary Group Creativity


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This article provides insight into how some groups achieve extraordinary levels of creativity by reconsidering the collective process through which new ideas develop. Previous research has been premised on a model in which idea generation stimulated by divergent input increases the variance in ideas a group generates and therefore increases the chance that one of the group's ideas will be a radical, breakthrough creative product. In contrast, I present a dialectical model in which the integration of group members' perspectives (which I label creative synthesis) is the foundation for new ideas. I propose that the process of creative synthesis improves the chance that each of a group's ideas is a breakthrough. I elaborate the process facilitators of creative synthesis and the implications of the dialectical model for understanding extraordinary group creativity. Creative synthesis provides an alternative way for groups to combine their cognitive, social, and environmental resources into extraordinary output.
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University College London
This article provides insight into how some groups achieve extraordinary levels of
creativity by reconsidering the collective process through which new ideas develop.
Previous research has been premised on a model in which idea generation stimulated
by divergent input increases the variance in ideas a group generates and therefore
increases the chance that one of the group’s ideas will be a radical, breakthrough
creative product. In contrast, I present a dialectical model in which the integration of
group members’ perspectives (which I label creative synthesis) is the foundation for
new ideas. I propose that the process of creative synthesis improves the chance that
each of a group’s ideas is a breakthrough. I elaborate the process facilitators of
creative synthesis and the implications of the dialectical model for understanding
extraordinary group creativity. Creative synthesis provides an alternative way for
groups to combine their cognitive, social, and environmental resources into extraor-
dinary output.
Groups of people working together sometimes
exhibit extraordinary group creativity—they
consistently produce novel and useful products,
processes, and other outputs that depart signif-
icantly from what has been done in the past (i.e.,
radical, breakthrough outputs). For example, in-
terdisciplinary teams of writers, directors, story-
boarders, and artists at the animation studio
Pixar have repeatedly produced films enjoying
an unprecedented degree of critical and com-
mercial success (The Economist, 2010; The Holly-
wood Reporter, 2012). As Pixar president Ed Cat-
mull summarized, “When it comes to producing
breakthroughs . . . Pixar’s record is unique”
(Catmull, 2008: 3). This kind of consistently out-
standing performance has been described as
extraordinary in other domains (Cotton, Shen, &
Livne-Tarandach, 2011; Ericscson, Krampe, &
Tesch-Romer, 1993; Roberts, Dutton, Spreitzer,
Heaphy, & Quinn, 2005); similarly, groups who
consistently produce breakthrough creative
ideas may be considered to exhibit extraordi-
nary group creativity.
How do some groups achieve such extraordi-
nary levels of creativity? Group creativity occurs
when a bounded and recognizable collection of
individuals works interdependently toward a
shared goal (Hackman, 1987) of developing out-
put that is both novel and useful (Amabile, 1988;
Woodman, Sawyer, & Griffin, 1993). Creative
outputs can range from incremental improve-
ments to radical ideas for breakthrough new
products, services, or processes (George, 2007;
Madjar, Greenberg, & Chen, 2011; Singh & Flem-
ing, 2010). Research on group creativity has gen-
erally drawn on an evolutionary model in which
random variation underlies the production of a
range of creative outputs, resulting in ideas that
fall along the continuum from incremental to
breakthrough (Staw, 2009). A breakthrough idea
falls into the right-hand tail of the distribution of
a group’s ideas. Researchers have theorized that
the chance of a breakthrough improves when a
greater variety of resources enters the process,
because diverse inputs stimulate variety in
Although random variation has been a pro-
ductive model for group creativity research, it
seems ill-suited for providing a complete expla-
nation of the consistent pattern of break-
throughs exhibited by groups like the produc-
tion teams at Pixar because it treats
breakthroughs as exceptions. We may instead
consider whether a process exists that increases
I am thankful for associate editor Neal Ashkanasy’s valu-
able guidance and the constructive feedback of three anon-
ymous reviewers throughout the review process. In addition,
I thank participants in the Strategy and Organizations read-
ing group in the Department of Management Science and
Innovation at UCL for their insightful comments on the
Academy of Management Review
2014, Vol. 39, No. 3, 324–343.
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the chance that each group output is a break-
through. Searching for alternative processes to
explain extraordinary group creativity may be
fruitful for two reasons. First, different forms of
creative output are likely to be produced
through different processes (Anderson & Tush-
man, 1990; Madjar et al., 2011; Unsworth, 2001;
Van de Ven & Poole, 1995). At the group level,
however, those alternatives have not been elab-
orated. Second, the random variation model is
based on the processes of individual creators
(Drazin, Glynn, & Kazanjian, 1999; Jackson &
Poole, 2003). However, collective creativity dif-
fers from individual creativity (Hargadon &
Bechky, 2006; Kurtzberg & Amabile, 2000-2001).
Despite increasing attention to the group pro-
cesses that support or hinder creativity (Shalley,
2008), the nature of the collective creative pro-
cess itself remains underexplored.
The purpose of this article is to develop an
alternative process through which groups may
combine the cognitive, social, and environmen-
tal resources identified as supporting group cre-
ativity in previous research to achieve extraor-
dinary levels of creativity. The process draws on
a dialectical model and is summarized in Fig-
ure 1. Specifically, I suggest that combining re-
sources through a process of creative synthesis
can increase the chance that a given idea is a
breakthrough. Creative synthesis is an integra-
tion of group members’ perspectives into a
shared understanding that is unique to the col-
lective. The synthesis acts like a map that
guides the development of ideas that are exem-
plars of the synthesis. The exemplars also
prompt groups to change or refine the synthesis
so that synthesis and exemplars coevolve. Syn-
thesis develops through a process in which
groups focus their collective attention, enact
ideas, and build on similarities within their di-
verse perspectives. I propose that this process is
more likely to result in a breakthrough idea.
Figure 2 illustrates that the resulting creative
product and the synthesis form the starting
point for a new process of creative synthesis.
Over time, repeating the process is expected to
facilitate the consistent production of break-
through ideas, enabling groups to achieve ex-
traordinary levels of creativity.
The dialectic approach to group creativity
builds on previous research in three ways. First,
the model extends our understanding of group
creativity to incorporate the repeated production
of breakthrough ideas over time, rather than
isolated moments of creative breakthrough. Sec-
ond, the model integrates insights from individ-
ual and organizational research to highlight
that the process through which a group’s re-
sources are transformed can influence the na-
ture and magnitude of creative output. It there-
fore expands the scope of research from the
resources that support group creativity to alter-
native processes for using those resources.
Third, the model offers process-based facilita-
tors of extraordinary group creativity that have
been relatively underexplored in the literature
to date by emphasizing the importance of devel-
oping a unique synthesis of perspectives. While
this insight is appreciated in the creativity liter-
ature generally, it has not yet been well inte-
grated into our understanding of the group cre-
ative process. The facilitators draw on the
cognitive, social, and environmental resources
identified as supporting creativity in previous
research, but they constitute new ways for
groups to use those resources. In sum, the facil-
itators indicate that a group’s diverse resources
are most effective for extraordinary group cre-
ativity when they are applied to developing a
synthesized understanding of the problem or
task, rather than to promoting divergence be-
tween group members.
A well-established body of research on idea
generation and brainstorming in laboratory and
organizational settings provides insight into the
resources that increase a group’s chance of pro-
ducing a breakthrough creative idea (e.g.,
Amabile, 1988; Diehl & Stroebe, 1987; Nijstad &
Stroebe, 2006; Paulus & Yang, 2000; West, 2002).
In particular, breakthrough ideas are more
likely when groups draw on a variety of re-
sources. For example, groups tend to be more
creative when they fully access members’ cog-
nitive resources (e.g., Gallupe, Bastianutti, &
Cooper, 1991; Shin, Kim, Lee, & Bian, 2012), have
diverse social resources based on group compo-
sition and interaction (e.g., Muira & Hida, 2004;
Watson, Kumar, & Michaelson, 1993), and are
supported by environmental resources that mo-
tivate members to generate and share ideas
(Eisenbeiss, van Knippenberg, & Boerner, 2008;
Taggar, 2002; Tsai, Chi, Grandey, & Fung, 2012).
2014 325Harvey
Creative Synthesis Process for Developing Breakthrough Ideas in Groups
Building on
chance of
Cognitive resources:
Individual members’
idea-generating ability
Social resources:
Group composition
resources: Supportive
and motivaing
Facilitates cognitive engagement with ideas
Situates ideas within group interaction
Immerses group in positive affective state
Creates new connections and understandings
Eases and expands group interaction
Builds on members’ attraction to ideas
Resources Creative synthesis process Creative outcome
Illustrates members’ knowledge
Initiates group interaction
Creates collective energy
Similarly, groups can decrease their chance of
selecting a poor idea from the left-hand side of
the distribution (Singh & Fleming, 2010) by using
their individual cognitive resources or com-
bined social resources to select creative ideas
(e.g., Goncalo & Staw, 2006; Miron-Spektor, Erez,
& Naveh, 2011).
An evolutionary model of idea generation
through random variation followed by selective
retention (Campbell, 1960; Simonton, 1999; Staw,
1990) is the creative process underpinning re-
search in this vein. Three features characterize
the creative process in the model, and each fea-
ture has facilitated group creativity research.
First, the process is staged. To begin, a problem
is identified or presented and ideas are gener-
ated in response. Ideas are then compared
against evaluation criteria, and one or more
ideas are selected to implement. Although re-
searchers have recognized that the stages are
likely to be recursive and iterative (Lubart, 2001)
and that they constitute the first phase of a
broader innovation process (Hülsheger, Ander-
son, & Salgado, 2009; West, 2002; Woodman et
al., 1993), the sequence follows a natural pattern
that has rarely been questioned (Fryer, 2012).
This characteristic allows researchers to isolate
and examine stages of the process indepen-
dently (e.g., Coskun, Paulus, Brown, & Sher-
wood, 2000; Rietzschel, Nijstad, & Stroebe, 2006).
The second feature of the process is that idea
generation occurs through divergent thinking, in
which one group member’s ideas stimulate new
directions for others’ creative thinking. This fea-
ture has enabled researchers to identify ways to
facilitate the critical idea generation stage of
the process (e.g., Paulus & Yang, 2000). The third
feature is that the process is adaptive and goal
directed. This feature has allowed researchers
to explore the conditions under which groups
are most likely to achieve the idealized creative
process (e.g., Eisenbeiss et al., 2008; Taggar,
2002; West, 2002).
The theorized process has been productive for
elaborating resources that support extraordi-
nary group creativity, but it also has limitations.
Alvesson and Sandberg (2011) suggest two
bases on which to challenge the assumptions
embedded in existing research that are relevant
to the literature on group creativity. First, eval-
uating the assumptions of the evolutionary
model underlying the literature reveals that the
model is better suited to explaining the genera-
tion of a single breakthrough idea than to ex-
plaining consistent breakthroughs. Although
some evolutionary models can explain radical,
breakthrough creativity, they generally assume
incremental change driven by factors outside of
the group (Van de Ven & Poole, 1995) and view
radical changes as infrequent (Gersick, 1991).
Further, it is not clear to what extent blind vari-
ation, which is central to the evolutionary
model, is possible or desirable (Runco, 2003). For
example, several authors argue that idea devel-
opment is guided by expertise (Weisberg &
Hass, 2007) and affect (Russ, 1999) and is there-
fore better described as “sighted variation”
(Sternberg, 1998).
Second, the empirical evidence in support of
both the value of a group’s cognitive, social, and
environmental resources and the group creative
A Dialectical Model of Extraordinary Group Creativity
Building on
Building on
2014 327Harvey
process itself is equivocal. In some cases the
resources predicted to improve group creativity
fail to do so, or the relationship contradicts the
model’s predictions. For example, interaction is
necessary to provide access to other members’
cognitive resources, but it is challenging for
group members and depletes their own cogni-
tive resources for idea generation (Diehl &
Stroebe, 1987); diverse composition is expected
to provide more varied input, but diverse groups
sometimes underperform homogeneous groups
on creative tasks (Harvey, 2013); and a support-
ive environment is expected to enhance creativ-
ity, but constrained task environments some-
times also promote creativity (Hoegl, Gibbert, &
Mazursky, 2008). Moreover, studies of the collab-
orative process in creatively demanding con-
texts like music, art, and science reveal that
creative groups often do not follow the expected
process (e.g., Elsbach & Kramer, 2003; Hargadon
& Bechky, 2006; Long-Lingo & O’Mahony, 2010;
Weick, 1998). Instead of generating ideas and
then selecting from the resulting idea set, group
members often focus on single ideas in depth,
ignore ideas, criticize ideas as they arise, and
provide immediate interpersonal rewards for
good ideas. Those studies, however, tend to be
conducted outside of research on idea genera-
tion and brainstorming (George, 2007).
These factors combine to suggest that teams
like those at Pixar may draw on their resources
through a different process. Supporting this sug-
gestion, studies of creative collaborations re-
veal that creativity occurs through a dialectic
negotiation and integration of stakeholders’
opinions and perspectives (Hargadon & Bechky,
2006; Long-Lingo & O’Mahony, 2010; Murnighan
& Conlon, 1991; Sawyer, 2004). A similar process
of reorganizing and integrating divergent un-
derstandings has been elaborated for individ-
ual (e.g., Koestler, 1964) and organizational (e.g.,
Drazin et al., 1999; Hargadon, 2002) creativity.
For example, although Pixar exemplifies
some features of traditional advice for creative
organizations, elements of the process through
which teams develop films at Pixar are unusual.
The critical creative moment at Pixar comes not
when group members diverge but when they
synthesize diverse ideas. In particular, the inte-
gration of art and technology underlies Pixar
films. Attempts to synthesize art and technology
create tension, but the resolution of that tension
produces novelty (Catmull, 2008). For instance,
the idea for A Bug’s Life created the challenge of
rendering the insect world in a way that would
make audiences warm to an otherwise unap-
pealing character; technology rose to that chal-
lenge by making the film visually stunning
(Isaacson, 2011). Fusing art and technology has
enabled Pixar to transform animated film by
finding technology-based solutions to artistic
problems that “songs and love stories” tradition-
ally solved in that genre (Pixar writer and direc-
tor Andrew Stanton; cited in Friend, 2011). Teams
at Pixar begin with a shared understanding of
character, narrative, music, and technology (An-
derson, 2011). They then create a small amount
of animation each day as the starting point for
the following day’s work. That animation high-
lights problems to be solved so that “Pixar’s
films will suck virtually until the last stage of
production—problems are constantly identified
and fixed” (Sims, 2011). Despite the unique as-
pects of Pixar’s process, the company expects
and allows its approach to develop over time.
Early on, Pixar replaced songs and love stories
with “big stars saying witty dialogue” (Andrew
Stanton; quoted in Friend, 2011). It then created
Wall-E, a film with virtually no dialogue (Friend,
2011), upending the very practices that had
made the company successful in the past.
The process that teams follow at Pixar pro-
vides insight into an alternative way groups
may produce and reproduce breakthrough
ideas. In the following sections I describe that
as a process of creative synthesis and explore
how it explains extraordinary group creativity.
Creative synthesis is rooted in a dialectical
model in which the constant struggle between
conflicting forces is a driver of change and nov-
elty (Hegel, 1977; Marx, 1967). Hegel in particular
conceptualized the integration of dialectic
forces as the heart of this process (see also Ford
& Ford, 1994). According to the model, people
engage in social interactions that are deter-
mined by their understanding of a situation
(Bartunek, 1984; Berger & Luckmann, 1966). That
understanding influences ways of thinking, the
questions that are asked, and the rules for what
is acceptable and desirable (Brown, 1978). Be-
cause interpretations of situations and the ac-
tions that flow from them contain incompatibil-
328 JulyAcademy of Management Review
ities, inconsistencies between competing views
create the opportunity for novelty to emerge
(Benson, 1977; Seo & Creed, 2002). That opportu-
nity is realized when understandings are recon-
ciled in a creative synthesis (Poole & Van de
Ven, 1989).
Conflict is a core element of a dialectical
model, just as it is central to the evolutionary
model underlying random variation. The role of
conflict differs between the two models, how-
ever. Whereas in random variation conflict
sparks dissent and disagreement, stimulating
idea generation through divergent thinking
(Jehn, 1995; Nemeth, 1986), in creative synthesis
conflict provides opportunities for diverse views
to be integrated. Opposing views move toward
one another in creative synthesis, rather than
away from one another. In addition, the source
of conflict differs between the two models.
Whereas conflict originates in the perspectives
that members bring to the group in random vari-
ation, in a dialectical model conflict arises
through the continuing social interactions be-
tween group members and their environment
(Kolb & Putnam, 1992). Conflict is therefore per-
petual in creative synthesis, created and re-
created through interactions even as previous
conflicts are reconciled through integration.
Dialectics and Extraordinary Group Creativity
The dialectical model is particularly useful for
explaining the production of breakthrough
ideas in groups for two reasons. First, dialectic
analysis is fundamentally a way to understand
collective processes (Benson, 1977) because it
explains how multiple divergent entities
change and develop over time (Van de Ven &
Poole, 1995). Specifically, it is the fact that actors
engage with one another that changes their un-
derstanding and allows new ideas to develop
(Bartunek, 1984; Benson, 1977).
Second, the dialectical model is better suited
to explaining the consistent production of break-
through ideas because it underlies relatively
more radical novelty (Bartunek, 1984; Van de Ven
& Poole, 1995). Synthesis and exemplars that
flow from it are qualitatively different from what
came before (Ford & Ford, 1994; Poole & Van de
Ven, 1989). This is because integrating opposing
dialectic forces provides the opportunity to
change multiple features at once, which is as-
sociated with more profound change than alter-
ing a single dimension (Sheldon, 1980). For ex-
ample, innovation in comic books can involve
telling a novel story, offering a unique artistic
interpretation of a story, or developing an un-
usual page structure (Taylor & Greve, 2006).
Each is a relatively incremental novelty. In con-
trast, a comic book creator may combine a page
structure associated with one genre with a story
structure associated with another, opening up a
new genre. This is a more dramatic change. It
contains both of the genres that went before it,
but it is more than a recombination of previous
elements; it is fundamentally new (Ford & Ford,
1994). Because conflicting ways of understand-
ing a situation have different values and prior-
ities, change in multiple aspects (Farjoun,
2002)—and therefore breakthrough creativity—
is more likely to result each time the process
Drawing on these insights, the overriding
proposition of this article is that a dialectic pro-
cess of integrating multiple understandings into
a creative synthesis increases the chance of de-
veloping a breakthrough idea. The process is
summarized in Figure 1. Repeatedly generating
ideas through this process can lead to the con-
sistent production of breakthrough ideas, as
each idea forms the foundation for a new pro-
cess of synthesis. This is illustrated in Figure 2.
Groups who leverage the process rely on syn-
thesis, not variety, to produce a breakthrough.
This does not imply that the process will always
result in extraordinary creativity (Van de Ven &
Poole, 1995); not every Pixar movie will neces-
sarily be a hit, and the creativity of those that
are can vary. I return to how the cognitive, so-
cial, and environmental resources that support
random variation also provide critical boundary
conditions for the synthesis process after devel-
oping the model.
Creative Synthesis Process and the
Development of Exemplars
The core creative activity of a dialectic pro-
cess is the synthesis of different ways of under-
standing or interpreting a problem or situation
(Bartunek, 1984; Benson, 1977; Hegel, 1977; Smith
& Lewis, 2011). The synthesis both enables the
development of specific ideas that exemplify the
synthesis (exemplars) and develops along with
those exemplars. Synthesis and exemplars
therefore coevolve.
2014 329Harvey
Creative synthesis. Creative synthesis recog-
nizes and develops complex connections be-
tween previously unrelated concepts (Bartunek,
Gordon, & Weathersby, 1983; Bledow, Frese, An-
derson, Erez, & Farr, 2009; Koestler, 1964). For
example, connections include combinations of
story, page structure, and art in comic books
(Taylor & Greve, 2006); the fusion of artistic nov-
elty with marketable sound in a song (Long-
Lingo & O’Mahony, 2010; Peterson & Berger,
1971); the mixture of previously unrelated tech-
nological components in a new product (Flem-
ing & Sorenson, 2004; Hargadon, 2002); or the
integration of art and technology in a Pixar
movie. The connections constitute new patterns
that capture new understandings (Lourenco &
Glidewell, 1975; Poole & Van de Ven, 1989).
The synthesis is not a specific idea; it is a new
way of understanding what an idea is. For ex-
ample, Brown (1978) illustrated that the shift in
IBM’s understanding of its business from “ma-
chines” to “information” altered the firm’s per-
ception of what constituted a good idea for a
new product. Similarly, Hargadon and Bechky
described moments of collective creativity as
involving “not only the original question, but
also [considering] whether there is a better
question to be asked” (2006: 492). The “better
question” may open up new possibilities that
were unlikely to be considered within the previ-
ous interpretation.
The synthesis can be described as creative
because the new pattern contained in it is a
novel construction distinct from both the domi-
nant understanding (i.e., the thesis) and an al-
ternative perspective (i.e., the antithesis; Van de
Ven & Poole, 1995). For example, the team at
world-renowned restaurant elBulli developed a
unique culinary style of applying scientific tech-
niques to high-quality ingredients to stimulate
and surprise diners’ senses (Svejenova, Mazza,
& Plannellas, 2007). The team’s approach dif-
fered from classical and nouvelle cuisine in re-
lying heavily on science, but it also departed
from pure science; it was a novel fusion of old
approaches (e.g., classic) and new (e.g.,
The value of creative synthesis in groups mir-
rors the way that individual creativity benefits
from understanding a problem from different
perspectives (Koestler, 1964; Miron-Spektor,
Gino, & Argote, 2011), reorganizing knowledge
(Baughman & Mumford, 1995; Finke, Ward, &
Smith, 1992; Scott, Lonergan, & Mumford, 2005),
and identifying or constructing a novel problem
(Getzels & Csikszentmihalyi, 1976; Reiter-
Palmon & Robinson, 2009; Zhang & Bartol, 2010).
For example, identifying shared and unshared
features of categories before generating ideas
helps individuals structure their creative think-
ing and results in more original and higher-
quality ideas (Mobley, Doares, & Mumford, 1992;
Mumford, Baughman, & Sager, 2003). Similarly,
organizational innovation involves the recombi-
nation and synthesis of knowledge from differ-
ent domains (Hargadon, 2002).
Creative synthesis, however, offers a funda-
mentally different explanation for creativity at
the group level. According to the random varia-
tion process, group creativity occurs because
members hold different perspectives that stim-
ulate one another’s thinking. The most radical
ideas will therefore be those that depart the
most from those of the group. According to the
creative synthesis process, group creativity oc-
curs because the space that exists between
members’ different perspectives offers the op-
portunity for a new framework to develop that
connects them. Although researchers have sug-
gested that group members should build on one
another’s ideas (Kohn, Paulus, & Choi, 2011; Os-
born, 1953), the rationale for doing so has been to
stimulate divergence by, for example, opening
up new categories for idea generation. In the
creative synthesis model it is the connection
between members’ ideas that is creative. Group
researchers have also identified the value of
shared goals to group creativity (Gilson & Shal-
ley, 2004; West, 2002). That research, however,
focuses on the motivational benefits that occur
when members believe they share goals, rather
than the construction of those goals. Exploring
creative synthesis as a collective creative pro-
cess can therefore provide new insights into
group creativity.
Exemplars. The synthesis both enables the de-
velopment of specific exemplar ideas based on
the synthesis and develops along with those
exemplars. It provides a shared way of under-
standing past and future ideas and events (Ford
& Ford, 1995). That understanding can act as a
map with which group members can search for
and evaluate new ideas (Fleming & Sorenson,
2004; Kuhn, 1970). Within the map are rules or
assumptions that underlie the original perspec-
tives that make up the synthesis and their rela-
330 JulyAcademy of Management Review
tion to one another (Koestler, 1964). The emerg-
ing map then guides the idea generation
process (Runco, 1994; Sternberg, 1998), helping
the group to identify the most promising direc-
tions for uncovering creative ideas. In addition,
because selection criteria are inherent in the
map, the group may view new ideas differently,
and, therefore, novel ideas may become accept-
able and valued. In this way the synthesis pro-
vides a foundation for novel ideas to develop
(Koestler, 1964). Those novel ideas—like a spe-
cific film or recipe—are exemplars of the
From this perspective, idea generation is not
random; it is shaped by the rules and assump-
tions that make up the map. The map is unique
to the group, so it leads the group to search for
ideas in places that others have yet to discover,
which can result in more creative solutions (Get-
zels & Csikszentmihalyi, 1976; Zhang & Bartol,
2010). Developing the map also helps the group
to eliminate less productive directions, improv-
ing solution quality and the efficiency of the
search process (Baer, Dirks, & Nickerson, 2013;
Fleming & Sorenson, 2004).
Creative synthesis can benefit the develop-
ment of exemplars even if it contains an inaccu-
rate view of the problem because it facilitates
communication between group members
(Cronin & Weingart, 2007) by endowing collec-
tive knowledge with structure and meaning
(Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005). In addition,
because the synthesis integrates diverse per-
spectives, members can benefit from exposure
to different views of the problem during the pro-
cess of constructing the synthesis. The synthesis
is therefore likely to be as accurate as ideas
generated and retained when members produce
ideas through random variation. Finally, the
synthesis can provide a group with the motiva-
tion to continue searching by giving them a
“glimpse of the possible” (Fleming & Sorenson,
2004: 912).
Because exemplars can embody the synthesis
in different ways, each idea that a group pro-
duces has the potential to be a breakthrough.
The synthesis limits the number of variables a
group can consider when developing an exem-
plar, but it also frees the group to focus its cre-
ative efforts on those variables that remain
(Finke et al., 1992; Goldenberg, Mazursky, & Sol-
omon, 1999). For example, Pixar uses technolog-
ical and artistic solutions to warm audiences to
traditionally unlikable characters, like a dis-
carded, cranky toy in Toy Story or an insect in A
Bug’s Life. Each character is unlikable in a dif-
ferent way and is rendered sympathetically
with a unique solution—witty dialogue from an
award-winning and popular actor in Toy Story
and beautifully detailed and evocative anima-
tion in A Bug’s Life. Technology and art work
together to bring characters to life, but in differ-
ent combinations. Similarly, each dish at elBulli
can embody the synthesis in a different way—
one dish may surprise diners by being hot when
they expect it to be cold; another may surprise
diners by being crunchy when they expect it to
be soft (Svejenova et al., 2007).
Over time, it may become increasingly diffi-
cult to develop breakthrough exemplars of a
particular synthesis. For example, after several
films a Pixar team may exhaust the number of
ways to make a character likable and rely on a
previous approach, producing an incrementally
creative but not breakthrough movie. However,
the synthesis is not fixed; it evolves as exem-
plars emerge that reveal and shape new under-
standings. When a new idea does not fit the
synthesis, it provides an anomaly that actors try
to make sense of (Tsoukas & Chia, 2002; Weick et
al., 2005). Through that process a new under-
standing develops. The synthesis is essential in
enabling members to recognize inconsistent
ideas, but the inconsistencies also cause the
synthesis to change (Kuhn, 1970). When Pixar
created Wall-E, for example, it challenged its
own understanding of dialogue and acting.
Process Facilitators of Creative Synthesis
Three processes can facilitate the integration
of group members’ diverse views: collective at-
tention, enacting ideas, and building on similar-
ities within different perspectives. Each process
facilitator operates by enabling the group’s cog-
nitive processing of ideas, their social interac-
tions, and their affective environment.
Collective attention. Synthesis begins by
identifying and questioning existing assump-
tions (Alvesson & Sandberg, 2011; Sheldon, 1980).
Doing so can create disillusionment with an ex-
isting idea from which a new understanding can
emerge (Palmer, 1969). This process implies that
group members initially devote their collective
attention to the prevailing paradigm and con-
sider emerging ideas in light of a shared under-
2014 331Harvey
standing of that paradigm. Having a shared un-
derstanding of the dominant view of a problem
or task does not imply that group members
agree with that understanding. Even while shar-
ing underlying values, group members can dis-
agree about specific actions and ideas (Cronin
& Weingart, 2007; Heracleous & Barrett, 2001). At
Pixar, for example, team members shared an
understanding of the traditional “rules” of ani-
mated films, but they also wanted to tell stories
in new ways that challenged those rules, and
they held a variety of perspectives on how to do
so. By collectively attending to the dominant
view and then to new ideas in light of that view,
teams at Pixar could diverge together from dom-
inant assumptions, values, and rules. This is
also illustrated by Farrell’s (1982, 2001) study of
Batignolle French impressionist artists in the
mid nineteenth century, who negotiated a
shared vision of art that both derived and de-
parted from the artistic movement of the time.
Their shared understanding of the dominant
paradigm enabled the artists to jointly attend to
one another’s paintings and appreciate how a
particular piece challenged an existing tenet of
“good” art.
Collective attention can help creative synthe-
sis to develop through cognitive, social, and af-
fective mechanisms. First, collective attention
facilitates group members’ cognitive engage-
ment with new ideas and information so that
new knowledge can be created. At the most ba-
sic level, group members cannot make meaning-
ful connections between ideas without attend-
ing to those ideas as they are discussed in the
group (Vera & Crossan, 2005)—for example, a
group member cannot answer a question he or
she has not listened to. Moreover, people are
more likely to attend to ideas that fit their inter-
pretations of a situation (Bartunek, 1984), so col-
lective attention to ideas in light of the group’s
shared understanding of the dominant frame
gives new ideas meaning (Csikszentmihalyi,
1999) and opens up new areas for inquiry (Alves-
son & Sandberg, 2011). Group members can
therefore become more deeply engaged with
ideas that receive the group’s collective
Second, collective attention facilitates group
interaction (Collins, 2005) by situating new ideas
within that interaction. Because the meaning of
any idea is situated in a particular context
(Elsbach, Barr, & Hargadon, 2005), focusing col-
lective attention on a new idea establishes the
basis for communication. Discussing, explain-
ing, and translating the idea help to build col-
lective understanding (Dougherty, 1992; Nonaka,
1994; Palmer, 1969). Collective attention can
therefore make it easier for group members to
communicate with one another and remain open
to others’ ideas (Cronin & Weingart, 2007; Gilson
& Shalley, 2004), enabling members to use one
another’s information for subsequent idea gen-
eration (Reiter-Palmon, Herman, & Yamma-
rino, 2008).
Third, collective attention promotes a positive
affective group state (Collins, 2005; Quinn & Dut-
ton, 2005). It makes the target, like a new idea,
more psychologically meaningful (Schteynberg,
2010) and immerses group members in the inter-
action (Collins, 2005). This leads to a positive
collective affective state, which enables group
members to think more broadly and flexibly so
that novel connections and unique integrations
are more likely to form (Bartunek et al., 1983;
Fredrickson, 2001; George & Zhou, 2002;
Isen, 1999).
Collective attention originating from a shared
understanding of the domain implies a different
process than random variation. Both processes
require conflict. Without disagreement, focusing
collective attention on an idea may push a
group toward consensus and, in doing so, pre-
vent effective decision making (Janis, 1972).
However, in the creative synthesis process, dis-
sent is applied to changing the dominant under-
standing of a task or situation and to elaborat-
ing a specific idea from a unique perspective,
rather than to generating a variety of ideas. The
ability to use diverse resources is therefore nec-
essary in both models, but those resources are
transformed into creative output in different
parts of the process. Diversity in the creative
synthesis model will be most helpful when dif-
ferent perspectives are applied to one focal idea
rather than used to stimulate many.
Enacting ideas. Enacting ideas that emerge
during group interaction by producing physical
objects can further aid creative synthesis. Enact-
ing ideas moves them toward implementation. It
therefore goes beyond abstract cognitive activi-
ties like elaborating ideas or identifying the dis-
advantages of a solution, although it may also
help to do those things. Pixar enacts ideas by
animating storyboards for a film. Depending on
their content, ideas can also be captured in
332 JulyAcademy of Management Review
drawings (Carlile, 2002), prototypes (Hargadon,
2002; Schrage, 2000), or performances (Bartunek,
1984; Sawyer, 2004). Even conversations about
how to enact an idea reveal ways to realize the
idea (Ford & Ford, 1995). Enacting ideas is typi-
cally viewed as implementation activity that oc-
curs at a later stage of the innovation process
(Hülsheger et al., 2009; West, 2002). However, en-
acting ideas earlier in the creative process can
provide a focal point for collective attention and
help to transform collective understanding (Car-
lile, 2002; Nicolini, Mengis, & Swan, 2012). For
example, enacting new structures that linked
members of a religious order for the first time
revealed new ways of thinking to members of
the order when they became exposed to others’
perspectives (Bartunek, 1984).
Enacting ideas can facilitate creative synthe-
sis through cognitive, social, and affective
mechanisms. First, enacting ideas builds collec-
tive knowledge by illustrating what is and is not
collectively known about an idea. It reveals un-
derlying assumptions (Bartunek, 1984; Hera-
cleous & Barrett, 2001) by making knowledge
collectively accessible (Nonaka, 1994). For exam-
ple, producing a few minutes of film illustrates
how members of a Pixar team visualize the story
and illuminates aspects of the story that the
team has not yet brought to life. Similarly, real-
izing design team members’ expectations for a
new product in a prototype illustrates their dif-
ferent interpretations of the idea. Enacting ideas
therefore uncovers unforeseen problems (Harga-
don, 2002; Schrage, 2000). At the same time it
provides the information necessary for a group
to solve those problems by creating a bridge
between perspectives and assumptions. For ex-
ample, a conversation between two engineers
about a prototype allows one to explain his or
her view and the other to reflect back that ex-
planation. That process creates new meaning
(Palmer, 1969). By enacting their ideas, groups
can therefore experiment with, explore, and
build new knowledge that is unique to the group
(Carlile, 2002; Hargadon, 2002; Lee, Edmondson,
Thomke, & Worline, 2004; Nicolini et al., 2012).
Physically engaging with ideas further aids that
process by activating cognitions and reposito-
ries of knowledge that stimulate creative think-
ing (Leung et al., 2012).
Second, enacting ideas initiates group inter-
action. Enacting ideas moves toward implemen-
tation, but it is not implementation. This means
that no choice has been made and an idea can
continue to develop. For this reason, early pro-
totyping aids the development of a new product
even when the prototype is incorrect (Thomke,
1998). As a result of the resolution of conflicting
views and the overlap in perspectives, new
practices and structures develop that are incon-
sistent with old ways of doing things (Ford &
Ford, 1994). For example, Majchrzak, More, and
Faraj (2012) describe how enacting ideas in a
tunnel analogy helped a team to generate ideas
for an educational experience. The tunnel en-
compassed team members’ collectively held
knowledge, but it was interpreted differently by
each member, so variety was retained. By re-
vealing inconsistency yet leaving space for both
interpretation and the solution to the inconsis-
tency, enacting ideas produces idea generation
that can lead to synthesis. Enacting an idea
is therefore a starting point for group interaction
that invites reactions from others (Tsoukas, 2009)
in a way that merely discussing abstract ideas
may not.
Third, enacting ideas can contribute to a
group’s positive affect. By helping group mem-
bers understand others’ abstract concepts, en-
acting ideas should reduce the chance of mis-
understandings that lead to interpersonal
conflict. Moreover, when people perceive their
thought processes as progressing in a concep-
tually coherent way, they tend to experience
positive affect (Mason & Bar, 2012). Enacting an
idea may enhance this perception because it
moves an idea forward and helps other group
members connect their perspective to the en-
acted idea. Positive affect can also be charac-
terized by the feeling that one wants to and is
able to act (Quinn & Dutton, 2005; Watson, Clark,
& Tellegen, 1988). Because enacting ideas is ac-
tion oriented, group members may experience
more positive affect. Enacting an idea means
that the group is making progress toward its
goal, and that feeling of progress can induce
positive affect (Amabile & Kramer, 2011;
Carver, 2003).
Enacting ideas involves a different process for
collective idea generation than the cognitive
stimulation underlying random variation. Cog-
nition and action are inextricably linked
through the synthesis process, so cognitive and
group processes cannot be isolated from the in-
teractions in which they occur (Elsbach et al.,
2005). The assertion that enacting ideas aids
2014 333Harvey
creative synthesis does not deny the importance
of cognition— cognition guides a group’s action,
and action reveals underlying cognitions
(Brown, 1978; Majchrzak et al., 2012). Cognitive
engagement increases in both models. In ran-
dom variation engagement is with one’s own
ideas, whereas in creative synthesis it is with
others’ ideas. However, this view also breaks
down the separation between idea generation
and idea implementation. In the synthesis
model implementation begins early and contin-
ues throughout idea generation. Enacting ideas
is not, however, about selecting or finalizing
group output; it is a means to continually de-
velop and refine the group’s understanding of
the problem.
Building on similarities. Synthesis occurs
when people begin to see similarities in other-
wise disparate perspectives (Koestler, 1964).
Therefore, although differences are what pro-
vide the opportunity for creative synthesis to
develop (Ford & Ford, 1994; Seo & Creed, 2002),
the persistence of differences disrupts synthesis
(Heracleous & Barrett, 2001; Murnighan & Con-
lon, 1991). At Pixar, for example, directors ac-
tively search for solutions to similar problems
they have experienced in the past. Elsbach and
Kramer (2003) found that creative collaborations
between Hollywood writers and producers be-
gan when producers experienced attraction to
some element of a writer’s idea. Common attrac-
tion to an idea can fuel the interactions through
which the idea develops. Therefore, identifying
and building on similarities facilitates creative
Similarities enable creative synthesis through
cognitive, social, and affective mechanisms.
First, cognitively, similarities are the basis for
new connections between interpretations. New
ways of thinking develop when differences are
used to test others’ assertions by trying to
strengthen, rather than weaken, those asser-
tions (Palmer, 1969). For example, looking for
similarities between a novel idea and existing
ideas tends to broaden the focal idea by identi-
fying new contexts in which to apply it (Langer
& Moldoveanu, 2000). Intense consideration of
an idea from multiple perspectives therefore
helps people to develop more complex and cre-
ative understandings (Bartunek et al., 1983;
Grant & Berry, 2011). The production and use of
analogies can be a critical part of this process.
Analogies involve comparing otherwise discon-
nected and incompatible ideas or objects (Koes-
tler, 1964) by drawing on existing knowledge to
explain and predict solutions to new problems
(Dunbar, 1997; Gentner, 1989). Analogies can
therefore shape new ways of understanding
problems (Hargadon, 2002). For example, design-
ers of the Rebok pump running shoe developed
their ideas through an analogy to IV bags in
medical devices.
A second mechanism through which similari-
ties facilitate synthesis is the easing and expan-
sion of group interaction. Analogies may be par-
ticularly valuable for groups because they
directly connect members’ otherwise diverse
perspectives by helping one group member re-
frame his or her knowledge in terms of another’s
experiences. This should enhance communica-
tion between the two. Reciprocally, having mul-
tiple examples from which to draw analogies
enables people to abstract an understanding
that can be transferred to a new problem (Gick &
Holyoak, 1983; Thompson, Gentner, & Loewen-
stein, 2000). Identifying similarities between
group members’ perspectives can therefore lead
to a deep structural insight that helps them to
create and communicate a new understanding
of the problem.
A third mechanism through which the search
for similarities may facilitate creative synthesis
is the group’s emergent affective state. Group
members’ attraction to ideas can motivate syn-
thesis (Ichazo, 1976, in Ford & Ford, 1994) by
directing their attention toward particular ideas
(Quinn & Dutton, 2005). For example, in Elsbach
and Kramer’s (2003) study, producers used posi-
tive feelings as cues about writers and their
ideas. Positive affective can signal that an idea
is on the right track (Elfenbein, 2007; George &
Zhou, 2002). Synthesis can then be built around
the ideas that commonly attract different group
members, despite their divergent views (Ford &
Ford, 1994). Because people tend to react nega-
tively to novel ideas (Mueller, Melwani, & Gon-
calo, 2012), group members may be more likely
to feel positive when they are able to identify
similarities between new ideas and their own
Building on similarities is an alternative way
to use diversity and task conflict than that sug-
gested by the random variation process. Like
random variation, it requires that differences
exist; a unanimously positive reaction to an idea
may not motivate a group to continue develop-
334 JulyAcademy of Management Review
ing the idea or searching for new alternatives
(Ford, 1996; George & Zhou, 2002). Building on
similarities without conflict may therefore lead
a group to converge on an idea too quickly
(Stasser & Birchmeier, 2003). However, the cre-
ative synthesis process differs in that a group
reconciles those differences rather than uses
them to branch off in different directions.
Relationships Between Process Facilitators,
Creative Synthesis, and Outcomes
The model depicted in Figure 1 does not fully
capture the complexity of the creative synthesis
process. Idea generation and evaluation are
concurrent and continuous throughout the
model, and the process facilitators are likely to
influence one another. For example, similarities
may be identified within enacted ideas, and en-
acted ideas may form a starting point for collec-
tive attention.
In addition, the synthesis and creative output
become the foundation for a continuing dialec-
tic. After producing creative output, a group will
receive feedback from the environment—from
managers and customers, for instance. Team
members may each interpret that feedback dif-
ferently. Those processes reveal new conflicts
and fissures. The synthesis therefore contains
the building blocks for new paradoxes that lead
to the next change (Ford & Ford, 1994; Poole &
Van de Ven, 1989). Conflicts and paradoxes are
never entirely resolved according to this view;
they become integrated into creative products
but continually resurface as the product and
group develop (Kolb & Putnam, 1992; Murnighan
& Conlon, 1991). The idea that results from cre-
ative synthesis is therefore both the outcome of
the creative process and its starting point. Con-
tinually revising the synthesis makes it possible
for groups to repeatedly produce break-
through ideas.
Creative synthesis is a process through which
a group’s cognitive, social, and environmental
resources are combined into creative output.
Therefore, cognitive resources like creative
thinking skills, social resources inherent in
group composition and dynamics, and environ-
mental resources that support autonomy and
motivation form critical boundary conditions for
the model. Without these even extraordinarily
creative groups can experience failure—after
eleven hit films, for example, Pixar’s Cars 2 re-
ceived a relatively poor critical and commercial
reception. The dialectical model can fail to pro-
duce extraordinary creativity in two ways. First,
without enough underlying conflict or diversity,
there is little opportunity for a novel synthesis to
form. In that case one perspective may dominate
another or ideas may represent incremental ad-
justments to the status quo (Drazin et al., 1999;
Van de Ven & Poole, 1995). Second, over long
stretches of time, the synthesis may become sta-
ble and the group may exhaust novel exem-
plars. Cognitive, social, and environmental re-
sources can mitigate the risk of these problems.
Cognitively, creative synthesis requires mem-
bers’ full engagement with one another and the
creative task. There are at least two ways that a
group’s cognitive resources could form a bound-
ary condition for the process. First, group mem-
bers may lack creative thinking skills. Skills like
cognitive flexibility are important for creativity
(Amabile, 1988), and groups with highly creative
members tend to have higher levels of creativity
(Pirola-Merlo & Mann, 2004; Taggar, 2002). Sec-
ond, even if group members possess creative
thinking skills, those cognitive resources could
be depleted or enriched by the task context. Cre-
ativity is more likely when tasks are challeng-
ing, interdependent, and autonomous, because
those tasks motivate members’ cognitive en-
gagement (West, 2002). Similarly, factors like ex-
treme time pressure that produce the need for
efficiency can prevent group members from en-
gaging in creative thinking (Baer & Oldham,
2006). This boundary condition also highlights
that the creative synthesis process theorizes a
different way for creative groups to combine
their cognitive resources. Whereas research
based on random variation shows that group
interaction distracts individual creative think-
ing (Diehl & Stroebe, 1987), the creative synthe-
sis model emphasizes that members draw on
cognitive resources through deeper engagement
with one another’s ideas.
Socially, variety in group membership pro-
duces the task conflict and dissent that stimu-
late creative synthesis. Groups low in diversity
may fail to search for novel alternatives (Ford,
1996). Even if a creative process is triggered, the
2014 335Harvey
process facilitators of synthesis may lead to
quick consensus around incremental or low-
quality ideas when there is little diversity in the
group (Janis, 1972; Stasser & Birchmeier, 2003).
Diversity in group membership, both in terms of
surface-level demographic characteristics (Wat-
son et al., 1993) and deep-level differences in
underlying knowledge (Muira & Hida, 2004), can
stimulate members’ creative thinking. Introduc-
ing a new small subgroup into the team may
also prompt changes in the synthesis over time,
particularly where new information and feed-
back are not available in the task environment.
This boundary condition also highlights that
groups use their resources in alternative ways
in the creative synthesis process. In the random
variation process, diversity stimulates divergent
idea generation. In the creative synthesis pro-
cess, in contrast, members draw on their social
resources by integrating members’ diverse
Environmentally, a supportive context in
which members are relatively equal in power
and status also forms a boundary condition for
the creative synthesis process. The outcome of a
dialectic process depends on the relative power
of those involved because members with author-
ity can enforce their ideas and prevent opposi-
tion to their views (Benson, 1977). A supportive
environment free of evaluative pressure is one
of the most important facilitators of individual
and group creativity (Amabile, Goldenfarb, &
Brackfield, 1990; Woodman et al., 1993) because
it ensures that members will be willing to voice
ideas without fear of being ridiculed or ostra-
cized. A flat hierarchy is likely to provide a more
supportive context. Environmental conditions
that encourage and support creativity, like set-
ting organizational goals for creativity (Gilson &
Shalley, 2004; West, 2002), should also enhance
members’ willingness to search for creative syn-
thesis. However, the environment also plays a
critical role in providing feedback that forms
new conflicts from which the synthesis can
progress. Previous research focused on how a
supportive social environment motivated the
creative process. In the creative synthesis model
the context ensures that the group structure and
power dynamics facilitate constructive conflict,
but it also provides varied input into that
The list of resources facilitating the creative
synthesis process presented here is far from ex-
haustive. Other resources that support the cre-
ative process as it has traditionally been as-
sumed to progress (for reviews see George, 2007;
Gilson & Shalley, 2004; Paulus & Nijstad, 2003;
West, 2002) are also likely to provide important
resources for creative synthesis, without which
groups may deplete the exemplars of the syn-
thesis and fail to adapt the synthesis suffi-
ciently over time. The creative synthesis process
also should not be considered infallible. Even
when groups possess the necessary resources
and follow the process, breakthroughs may be
rare. The argument advanced here is that cre-
ative synthesis improves the chance that a
given group idea will be a breakthrough rela-
tive to the random variation process. It therefore
provides a foundation for generating the consis-
tently breakthrough ideas characteristic of ex-
traordinary group creativity by enabling the
production of many breakthrough exemplars
and revising the synthesis over time.
Scholars have recently suggested that creativ-
ity research is becoming routinized, resulting in
incremental, but few breakthrough, insights
(Anderson, De Dreu, & Nijstad, 2004; George,
2007). The model I have presented in this article
is one attempt to stimulate relatively more rad-
ical directions for research by considering how
some groups, like those at Pixar, are able to
exhibit not only moments of creative brilliance
but extraordinary group creativity.
Explaining Extraordinary Group Creativity
The first contribution of this article is one pos-
sible explanation of how some groups consis-
tently produce breakthrough ideas over time,
adding to the growing interest in performance
that consistently exceeds normal expectations
(e.g., Spreitzer & Sonenshein, 2003). A random
variation process founded on an evolutionary
model predicts the rare occurrence of break-
through ideas. The dialectical model presented
here, in contrast, builds on the insight that rad-
ical ideas may be developed through a different
process than incremental ideas (Madjar et al.,
2011) to elaborate one way to improve the
chance that each of a group’s ideas is a
336 JulyAcademy of Management Review
Two features of the model enable the repeti-
tion of breakthroughs. First, the synthesis em-
bodies a unique understanding of the problem
or task that acts like a theory for producing
ideas. The synthesis can therefore generate
multiple exemplars, each of which can be a
breakthrough. One mechanism of extraordinary
group creativity, thus, is the process of con-
structing a shared understanding of a problem
or situation. Virtually no research to date has
examined how some groups are able to come up
with novel ways of understanding problems
(Reiter-Palmon & Robinson, 2009) or how group
members build on and integrate one another’s
ideas (Kohn et al., 2011). Moreover, solutions to
promote idea generation through random varia-
tion, such as increasing diversity or task con-
flict, may make it more difficult for group mem-
bers to engage in these activities, which require
some convergence. The second feature of the
model that enables the repetition of break-
throughs is that the synthesis itself is continu-
ally revised, because conflict is never resolved
and outcomes are temporary and transitional. A
second mechanism for extraordinary group cre-
ativity, thus, is constraint. Previous research in-
dicates that constraints can enhance creativity
by, for example, providing a template for idea
generation (Goldenberg et al., 1999). How this
operates at the group level, however, is unclear.
Insights into the Group Creative Process
Although researchers are increasingly explor-
ing the group processes involved in creativity,
research has yet to reconsider the nature of the
creative process itself. The second contribution
of this article is therefore to offer one alternative
conceptualization of the creative process in
groups that challenges the three characteristic
features of the random variation process.
First, whereas the random variation process
assumes a natural sequence in which stages
can be isolated, creative synthesis emphasizes
the integration of stages. There is no logical
ordering to the relationship between synthesis
and the development of exemplars; exemplars
can derive from the synthesis, but they can also
trigger a sensemaking process through which
the group arrives at synthesis. Similarly, idea
generation and evaluation occur simultane-
ously throughout the process. For example, con-
necting ideas produces novelty but also in-
volves evaluating the constituent ideas to
identify relationships between them. The contin-
ual evolution of synthesis with exemplars also
implies that both are moments in a group’s life,
rather than an outcome of the creative process.
In the dialectical model ideas move from en-
acted prototypes to exemplars of the synthesis
to creative output, and may influence the syn-
thesis at each point. Creative synthesis there-
fore anticipates the continual development and
refinement of ideas that have been demon-
strated to improve group creativity (Nijstad,
Stroebe, & Lodewijkx, 1998), rather than assumes
that arriving at a single creative output is the
goal of a group’s endeavors. These insights im-
ply that future research should consider the
mechanisms through which parts of the creative
process that have traditionally been viewed
separately, like problem construction, idea gen-
eration, and idea evaluation, mutually influence
one another over time.
Second, random variation focuses on the pro-
duction of new ideas through divergence. In con-
trast, the dialectical model shifts the emphasis
to processes involved in evaluating novel ideas,
which have received much less research atten-
tion (Harvey & Kou, 2013; Rietzschel et al., 2006).
Perspectives and understandings must be eval-
uated to be integrated into the synthesis, and
this may occur in part by evaluating enacted
ideas. Synthesis is therefore a mechanism
through which elements of different perspec-
tives and ideas are retained. The retention
mechanism takes priority over idea generation
in the synthesis process because it both influ-
ences idea selection and guides the idea gener-
ation process. The dialectical model therefore
calls for more precise research on how groups
evaluate novel ideas. The model implies that
synthesis helps groups to evaluate their ideas;
however, the way that exemplars are selected
and developed into final creative output re-
quires further investigation.
Finally, whereas the prevailing model as-
sumes an adaptive, goal-directed process, cre-
ative synthesis can be achieved by altering con-
texts to generate variety. From this perspective,
the contexts and processes that support creativ-
ity are less important than the process of con-
tinually adjusting group interactions and perfor-
mances (Ford & Ford, 1994; Livingstone, Palich,
& Carini, 2002). Even maladaptive processes and
environments may provide a source of variation.
2014 337Harvey
For example, presenting an idea to a hostile
audience provides a group with an alternative
perspective from which a new synthesis can de-
velop. The dialectical model offers a more prac-
tice-based approach to group creativity that is
grounded in the way a group’s actions and in-
teractions generate diversity and divergence
(Nicolini, Gherardi, & Yanow, 2003), rather than
the mental knowledge structures of group mem-
bers. This view highlights that a group is em-
bedded in its environment, because the environ-
ment is a source of variation for refining the
group’s synthesis.
Taken together, the three alternative features
constitute a model that deviates from the input-
process-output approach to understanding
groups by recognizing that groups “continually
cycle and recycle” (Ilgen, Hollenbeck, Johnson, &
Jundt, 2005: 519) as they move through the cre-
ative process and that the nature of those inter-
actions changes both the teams and their out-
puts. The dialectical model therefore introduces
questions about the flow of creative interactions
and how transition points alter that flow. For
example, one question for further research is
how having one breakthrough idea shapes a
group’s subsequent creative process and out-
comes, because an idea is the input for a con-
tinuing synthesis in the dialectical model. A sec-
ond question is how interactions with the
external environment at various points over
time affect a team’s creative progress. Context
provides more than support in the dialectical
model because a team’s encounters with the
environment are a source of variation enabling
further synthesis.
Resources to Support the Creative Process
Researchers have established a set of re-
sources facilitating group creativity: the skills of
group members, the ideal group composition,
and a group’s internal and external environ-
ment. They have paid relatively less attention to
the way groups draw on those resources. Incor-
porating the creative process through which
groups use their resources into theories of group
creativity may help to resolve discrepant find-
ings in the existing literature. For example, the
process suggested here implies that when di-
verse groups combine their underlying perspec-
tives into a shared view of a problem and then
generate solutions, they have a higher chance of
developing a breakthrough idea than when they
use their diversity to stimulate idea generation
directly. Examining this process may therefore
help to untangle some of the equivocal results
about the value of diversity found in previous
The dialectical model can also offer new di-
rections for research into the resources them-
selves. For example, like previous research, the
synthesis process emphasizes group members’
cognitive engagement with the creative task.
However, it also highlights the need for research
into the relatively unexamined question of what
factors lead group members to engage with one
another’s ideas. Without this engagement, syn-
thesis is not possible. Yet research to date
broadly suggests that group members are likely
to react negatively to one another’s novel ideas
(Mueller et al., 2012; Runco & Smith, 1992). Simi-
larly, whereas the creative synthesis process
supports the importance of diversity, it suggests
more careful attention to two dimensions of the
composition of the group. First, the dialectical
model implies that groups should bring together
two or more previously disconnected competen-
cies or bodies of knowledge, such as art and
technology at Pixar.
The less closely related
those specialties, the greater the opportunity to
develop a novel synthesis. Second, the model
suggests that groups are more likely to benefit
from a small number of subgroups with different
areas of expertise but similar status, rather than
maximum variance in backgrounds and per-
spectives. In addition, the model indicates that
diversity is best applied to developing a shared
task or problem understanding, rather than to
generating ideas. Finally, while the creative
synthesis process also requires the task context
to motivate creativity, it opens up the possibility
that the environment can stimulate the process
by providing negative feedback that challenges
a group’s synthesis.
Groups require cognitive, social, and environ-
mental resources to generate extraordinary
breakthrough ideas. The key message of this
article is that combining those resources
I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for this
338 JulyAcademy of Management Review
through a process of creative synthesis can help
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gagement. Academy of Management Journal, 53: 107–128.
Sarah Harvey ( is an assistant professor in the Department
of Management Science and Innovation at University College London (UCL). She
received her Ph.D. in organizational behavior from the London Business School. Her
research examines dynamic group processes, particularly creativity in groups
and teams.
2014 343Harvey
... Building on ideas is widely recommended in the group creativity (Hargadon & Bechky, 2006;Harrison & Rouse, 2015;Harvey, 2014) and design literature (Dorst & Cross, 2001). It is believed that the practice of building on ideas enables ideators to generate ideas that they would not have thought of otherwise. ...
... 3. In line with recent debates in the literature arguing that building on ideas affects both the divergent and convergent processes inherent in group creativity (Coursey et al., 2018;Harvey, 2014;Le Masson et al., 2010;Paulus et al., 2019), we also provide empirical evidence that stimulus ideas (i.e., ideas that are built upon) are more likely to be selected than non-stimulus ideas. Together, these results suggest that building on novel ideas is highly beneficial because it increases ideators' likelihood to generate and select novel ideas. ...
... While prior laboratory studies have focused on the role of building on ideas in generating better ideas in brainstorming contexts (Girotra et al., 2010;Kohn & Smith, 2011), the organizational creativity and design literature highlight that building on ideas also influence broader creativity processes (Hargadon & Bechky, 2006;Harvey, 2014;Harvey & Berry, 2022;Litchfield, 2008;Sutton & Hargadon, 1996). In particular, research also shows that building on ideas is of paramount importance when people evaluate and select new ideas. ...
Long-standing wisdom holds that building on ideas is beneficial for group creativity. We empirically verify this recommended practice. We analyse creativity sessions of nine groups of professionals tasked to synthesize new ideas into one final creative concept. Linkography and quantitative analysis are used for analysing the impact of building on ideas on group creativity. First, the results indicate that building on ideas does not lead to more novel, feasible, or useful ideas. Second, our study shows that building on ideas is beneficial only if the ideators build upon the “right” ideas. Ideators generate more novel ideas only when they build on novel ideas. Moreover, our research reveals a trade-off: Building on novel ideas leads to more novel but less feasible ideas while building on familiar ideas leads to less novel but more feasible ideas. Finally, we find that stimulus ideas (i.e., ideas that are built upon) are more likely to be selected and integrated into the final concept. Taken together, our results indicate that building on novel ideas enhances the generation and selection processes. Implications for theory and research on creativity in organizations are discussed.
... A growing body of research unpacks the challenge of simultaneously engaging seemingly competing demands such as those between divergent and convergent thinking (Beersma & De Dreu, 2005;Harvey & Kou, 2013), passion and discipline (Andriopoulos & Lewis, 2010), conflict and harmony (Nemeth et al., 2004) and action and planning (Fisher et al., In press). To help teams navigate this inherent complexity, scholars are increasingly attempting to identify conditions and practices that enable them to integrate inconsistent elements in the collective development of new ideas (Bledow et al., 2009;Gebert et al, 2010;Harvey, 2014). ...
... Moreover, team members are often reluctant to share and scrutinize their conflicting perspectives (De Dreu et al., 2011), making integrating across team members -especially those with competing interests -more challenging than integrating across only task demands (Taylor & Greve, 2006). Thus, while a paradoxical frame can enhance individual creativity, a team's ability to capitalize on a paradoxical frame may be limited as it also needs to integrate across members' diverse perspectives as well as across different task demands (Harvey, 2014;Taggar, 2002). ...
... Addressing global challenges increasingly depends on teams working together to navigate tensions and integrate opposing perspectives to enable creative solutions (Harvey, 2014). These tensions could include the need to be both generative while critical, act while planning, and promote diversity while enabling cohesion. ...
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To successfully generate creative solutions, teams must reconcile inconsistent perspectives and integrate competing task demands. We suggest that adopting a paradoxical frame - a mental template that promotes recognizing and embracing the simultaneous existence of seemingly contradictory elements - helps teams navigate this process to produce creative ideas, if team members are epistemically motivated. Our results from two laboratory studies (N = 950) suggest that teams that adopt paradoxical frames and have high epistemic motivation develop more creative solutions than teams with paradoxical frames and low epistemic motivation or epistemically motivated teams with frames that only encourage information sharing. Teams with paradoxical frames and high epistemic motivation are more creative because they engage in idea elaboration – they exchange, consider, and integrate diverse ideas and perspectives. By contrast, other teams settle on suboptimal middle-way solutions that do not address task demands. Our research advances knowledge of why and when paradoxical frames benefit team creativity, by unpacking the processes that enable teams to leverage task and team tensions. We show that when teams collectively work through their tensions and elaborate their diverse ideas they become more creative.
... This triadic model underscores that, in fact, the creative, interdisciplinary (or transdisciplinary) design thinking is an outcome of dialectic, or even dialogical (Lybeck, 2010), processes among disciplines, stakeholders, the problem at hand, and the variety of possible design solutions. Harvey (2014) proposes that this type of creative synthesis can only generate breakthrough ideas if it integrates multiple understandings for the same problem. Specifically, in Harvey's (2014) model, breakthrough ideas require a context where ideas are enacted, similarities are built upon, and collective attention is securedand it is only through a sort of reflection in action (Schön, 1984) that creative synthesis can generate exemplars that are iteratively improved until breakthrough. ...
... Harvey (2014) proposes that this type of creative synthesis can only generate breakthrough ideas if it integrates multiple understandings for the same problem. Specifically, in Harvey's (2014) model, breakthrough ideas require a context where ideas are enacted, similarities are built upon, and collective attention is securedand it is only through a sort of reflection in action (Schön, 1984) that creative synthesis can generate exemplars that are iteratively improved until breakthrough. ...
... Namely, they highlight metacognition, prolonged research, problemcreating, delaying closure, reflection, thematic coherence, emotional engagement, and intuition as essential art-domain dominant cognitive strategies and mindsets, which architects often practice. Specifically, problem-creating and problem-setting are key to innovation and creativity, where sometimes redefining or interpreting the problem from different perspectives can lead to breakthroughs (Harvey, 2014) by navigating ill-defined problems towards a satisfactory resolution. Cross (2018) also proposes that the process of designing requires a commutative relationship between problem and solution and between problem and sub-problems. ...
Conference Paper
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INTRODUCTION The link between creativity, design thinking, and interdisciplinarity has been explored by Darbellay et al. (2017). They proposed that the three dimensions are not contradictory, but instead, they form triadic-feedback loops that cannot be resolved in a unified synthesis. This triadic model underscores that, in fact, the creative, interdisciplinary (or transdisciplinary) design thinking is an outcome of dialectic, or even dialogical (Lybeck, 2010), processes among disciplines, stakeholders, the problem at hand, and the variety of possible design solutions. Harvey (2014) proposes that this type of creative synthesis can only generate breakthrough ideas if it integrates multiple understandings for the same problem. Specifically, in Harvey's (2014) model, breakthrough ideas require a context where ideas are enacted, similarities are built upon, and collective attention is secured-and it is only through a sort of reflection in action (Schön, 1984) that creative synthesis can generate exemplars that are iteratively improved until breakthrough.
... Major shifts, in which ideas diverge in substantial ways from initial ideas, are essential for breakthrough creativity (Harvey, 2014). Yet, it is unlikely that such shifts are as instantaneous as they have been portrayed. ...
... We also observed two paths through which that occurred. Reaching out may have connected creators to new information and ideas, prompting greater divergent thinking (Guilford, 1950;Campbell, 1960); reaching in may have helped creators to reconstruct the fragments of their assumptive worlds into a new understanding through integration or synthesis (Koestler, 1964;Harvey, 2014). Those processes enabled creators to use the jolts to redirect their idea, much like trauma victims go on to reconstruct their assumptions about themselves and the world after an initial period of tumult. ...
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How do entrepreneurs and other creators let go of ideas they are deeply committed to in the context of creative revision and successive interactions with mentors, peers and family? In this paper, we open up the phenomenon of 'creative jolts', explaining how destructive and affectively challenging episodes can play an important role during creative endeavours, leading to radical shifts in the direction of the relevant idea journeys.
... The complexity of problems that modern organization face requires diverse perspectives and the integration and synthesis of disparate knowledgethat is, the use of diverse and interdisciplinary teams (Harvey, 2014;Kozlowski & Bell, 2008). As a result, organizations require teams of individuals engaged in creative problem solving (i.e., creative teams) to address these complex problems (Reiter-Palmon et al., 2012;West et al., 2004). ...
... Ref. [84] indicates that an integrative approach to team leadership is necessary for successful interdisciplinary projects. The goal of integrative leadership is to achieve team creativity through a process of integrating the experiences, perspectives and ideas of both team leaders and their members [90,91]. Leadership is, therefore, another element that influences the effective cooperation of an interdisciplinary Sustainable Industry 4.0 project team. ...
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Contemporary project teams are increasingly used to solve problems that are at the crossroads of many disciplines and areas dedicated to Industry 4.0, which is a watershed in the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Industry 4.0 can serve as a platform for the alignment of SDGs with the ongoing digital transformation. This involves specific challenges for teams, but also allows perspectives that may create innovative and high-quality results. In order to meet these challenges while taking advantage of the opportunities offered by interdisciplinary cooperation, project teams, including the team leader, should have specific competencies. With this in mind, the aim of this article is to identify the challenges and perspectives related to working in interdisciplinary Sustainable Industry 4.0 project teams and to define the competencies necessary to act as a member and leader of these teams. Implementation of this aim will be possible by answering two research questions: (1) What requirements and opportunities are involved with interdisciplinary work amongst members of Sustainable Industry 4.0 project teams; and (2) What are the competencies necessary of members and leaders of such teams to meet these requirements and take advantage of the opportunities for such cooperation? An exploratory case study was conducted among members of interdisciplinary project teams at one of the leading technical universities in Poland. Qualitative data were obtained from many sources: interviews, internal documentation of analyzed projects and managerial notes. The obtained results allow us to state that the most important challenges and perspectives related to the work of interdisciplinary Sustainable Industry 4.0 teams include coordination of individual parts of the project, integrative leadership, establishing a common language, broad views on the issues raised and building a team consisting of specialists with the required competencies. The competencies of the project team that are important for working in the analyzed environment include strategic perspective, communication skills and persuasion, while for leaders, competencies must include the ability to coordinate work, resource management, empowering and motivation.
... Superficial processing of information and a stronger focus of members on themselves is at odds with the creative work expected of innovation teams. Our integrative view hence contributes to the innovation literature on the prerequisites of, and the processes leading to, team creativity (e.g., Bissola & Imperatori, 2011;Cirella, 2021;Harvey, 2014). ...
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Despite the clear relevance of stressors for the creative work performed by individuals, how they affect teams in their ability to innovate is poorly understood. Thus, the question as to what kind of, and by which mechanisms, team stressors may give rise to better innovation team performance needs further consideration. We address this issue by applying the challenge–hindrance stressor framework to the team level of analysis in the context of innovation teams. By integrating insights from social identity theory and the attentional focus model, we highlight the importance of identity‐ and information‐based mechanisms in transmitting the differential effects of challenge and hindrance team stressors on the performance of innovation teams. We test our arguments for two of the most prominent indicators of innovation team performance (i.e., team creativity and team efficiency) in a multi‐informant sample of team members, team‐internal leaders, and team‐external managers from 114 innovation teams. Our findings support the opposing effects of challenge and hindrance team stressors in predicting innovation team performance through the two differential mechanisms. Specifically, for team efficiency, both team stressors come with the cost of team task conflict (i.e., the information‐based mechanism). However, whereas challenge team stressors enhance collective team identification (i.e., the identity‐based mechanism), hindrance team stressors undermine collective team identification, thereby aggravating their already negative effect on team efficiency. In terms of team creativity, our results suggest that both types of team stressors exert their indirect effects solely via the identity‐based mechanism. Implications for research and practice are discussed.
Given the importance of theorizing about an entrepreneurial phenomenon, we seek to highlight the common challenges of entrepreneurship papers’ theorizing and offer suggestions for how we (as a community of scholars) can address these challenges to develop more robust and impactful entrepreneurship papers to advance the entrepreneurship field. Specifically, we identify the following major reviewer comments of entrepreneurship papers regarding their scope, common features (i.e., contextualization, boundary conditions, and time considerations), and “point of view”. Elaborating on these common comments of entrepreneurship theory papers, we offer guidance on incorporating these insights when writing or reviewing entrepreneurship papers.
A fundamental challenge for interorganizational innovation projects is employing diverse actors’ knowledge, expertise and perspectives for situation-specific demands of complex innovation. Innovation advancement is dependent on the degree to which knowledge is used and synthesized to address emerging and situation-specific demands of innovation. The goal of this study is to shed light on organizing for joint knowledge creation in a strategic interorganizational innovation project. Based on an inductive analysis of interview data from one strategic interorganizational innovation project, we identified the iterative process, self-organizing working groups and dynamic participation as practices through which the actors involved arranged and enacted their joint efforts, namely, knowledge creation and progress of innovation. This study contributes to research on managing strategic interorganizational projects by suggesting that organizing, which involves structural and informal organizing practices, supports managing strategic interorganizational projects where the diverse actors’ knowledge integration is at the core of the innovation project's goals.
Using a mood-as-input model, the authors identified conditions under which negative moods are positively related, and positive moods are negatively related, to creative performance. Among a sample of workers in an organizational unit charged with developing creative designs and manufacturing techniques, the authors hypothesized and found that negative moods were positively related to creative performance when perceived recognition and rewards for creative performance and clarity of feelings (a metamood process) were high. The authors also hypothesized and found that positive moods were negatively related to creative performance when perceived recognition and rewards for creativity and clarity of feelings were high.