Abstract (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Ideas for Leaders #654

Why Flat Information Structures Enable Creative Thinking

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Key Concept

Flat information structures — in which information is not separated out into categories — is more conducive to creativity because they encourage combining information from different categories.



Idea Summary

Creativity occurs when pieces of information are put together in novel and useful ways. ‘Information’ here is used broadly, and includes objects, symbols and facts. This broad concept of information is known as ‘declarative information.’ For example, a chair consists of three pieces of declarative information: a seat, legs, and a back.

Information can be presented in either a hierarchical structure or a flat structure. In a hierarchical structure, the information is broken down into higher-order categories. For example, the words ‘dog,’ ‘cat,’ ‘mouse’ and ‘cow’ are nouns that fit into the higher order ‘animal’ category.

A flat information structure does not separate the information into categories. For instance, the nouns ‘pudding,’ ‘Ukraine,’ ‘check,’ ‘mouse’ and ‘symphony’ are presented in a flat information structure — there are no evident information categories.

Creativity emerges from putting together distal information from different categories. For example, the wheelchair, a creative solution for immobility, was developed by combining information from the furniture and vehicle categories.

According to Yeun Joon Kim and Chen-Bo Zhong of the Rotman School of Management, hierarchical information structures tend to reduce cognitive flexibility and thus creativity. The reason is that the information is pre-packaged into separate categories, which discourages people from pulling together information from disparate categories — a process known as cognitive flexibility.

In three experiments, Kim and Zhong prove that flat information structures increase cognitive flexibility and, as a result, increase creativity.

The first two experiments asked participants to construct sentences based on a set of given words (100 nouns in the first experiment and 45 nouns in the second). Participants in the hierarchical information structure condition received the list of nouns broken into categories (20 sets of five related nouns in the first experiment, 9 sets of 5 nouns in the second). No category was given to the participants in the flat information structure condition.

Three linguistics undergraduates in the first experiment and a PhD and two doctoral English Literature candidates in the second experiment evaluated the creativity of the sentences. Creativity in both experiments included average creativity and ‘best creativity,’ which was a separate score for the best sentence. The evaluators in the second experiment also specifically evaluated the creativity of the participants’ use of the nouns (in addition to the creativity of the sentence).

Cognitive flexibility was measured by the number of different categories of nouns the participants used in their sentences.

The results for the two experiments were unequivocal. Participants in the flat information conditions constructed more creative sentences, and the reason was cognitive flexibility: they used nouns from a greater number of different categories.

A third experiment replaced nouns with Lego pieces. In the hierarchical condition, the Lego pieces were separated into 99 categories (based on 9 different colors and 11 different shapes). The participants in the flat condition, in contrast, were given bins with the different Lego colors and shapes thrown together. Asked to build an alien, the participants in the flat condition were more creative (as measured by overall creativity and also resemblance to earth creatures). Cognitive flexibility again explained the differing results: participants in the flat condition used Lego bricks from a greater range of categories.

Business Application

This research has clear implications for practitioners. First it explains why cross-functional teams, which introduce different ‘categories’ of information to the innovation process — are effective.

At the same time, it reveals why some cross-functional teams might be undermining their effectiveness. For example, if members from different functions sit and work together before contributing to the entire team’s efforts, they have in effect introduced hierarchy into the process, losing the benefit of the flat structure that gives cross-functional innovation teams their effectiveness.

In this case, the researchers suggest a formal process in which team members write down as many new product ideas as possible, which are then collected with ideas from all the other members before being distributed to the team. This prevents organizing categories from being pre-emptively tagged onto the ideas.

It should be noted that flat information structures do not automatically lead to more creativity. For example, managers need to keep in mind that flat information structures can seem overwhelming to people with less cognitive capability — which will result in less creativity.

Nevertheless, in general, the less impediments that exist to combining distal information, the better the chance for creative ideas and solutions.

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Idea conceived

  • January 2017

Idea posted

  • May 2017

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