Game Changing Innovation Is Rooted in Diverse Experiences and Knowledge

Eric Sharfstein
January 12, 2016

What spurs creativity? A Columbia sociologist studied the teams behind 12,422 video games released worldwide from 1979, when the gaming industry started, to 2009, and found the most innovative teams were built around diverse experiences and knowledge.

David Stark, the Arthur Lehman Professor of Sociology, found that the most effective teams were comprised of people who had experience working together but different knowledge and skills. His findings, which can be applied to many types of teams—businesspeople, scientists, economists, musicians, engineers and more—show that prior social interactions enable groups to avoid intractable conflict while diverse expertise helps them avoid the pitfalls of “groupthink.”

In other words, the cognitive distance of diversity creates a friction—a productive friction in teams in which some members of the group had previously worked together. “It is this uneasy fit, a lack of harmony, which is innovative,” said Stark. “It is a mobilization of productive tension to create something exceptional. Misunderstandings and breakdowns in communication can be as important as a smooth exchange of ideas.”

In the study, “Game Changer: The Topology of Creativity,” published by the American Journal of Sociology, Stark, director of Columbia’s Center on Organizational Innovation, and two former doctoral students, Mathijs de Vaan (GSAS’15) of the University of California, Berkeley and Balazs Vedres (GSAS’04) of the Central European University, Budapest, measured inventiveness independently from critical acclaim to construct a third measure—whether or not a game was also a “game changer.”

Using this third measure as a benchmark, Stark and his team studied the career histories of 139,727 video game developers as well as 105 stylistic elements of the games. A stylistic element, for example, is sidescrolling when characters move from left to right on the screen. The stylistic elements of each game as well as a complete list of the team members who developed it were recorded. In addition, each developer received a unique identification tag to enable the researchers to reconstruct his or her career in the industry.

The researchers found that video game developers who had collaborated on prior projects were often selected to join a team as a group. Teams, then, were comprised of multiple social groups. When groups overlapped—meaning some members had worked together before— and had dissimilar knowledge, their team was most likely to create video games that were inventive and critically acclaimed.

“Lots of teams can be creative without being successful and lots of teams can be successful without being creative,” says Stark. “In the development of video games, we found that the conditions for an innovative product require the overlap of prior experience together and the presence of cognitive diversity.”

He also suggests that team building itself can be a creative endeavor. If there are 10 people, don’t just split them evenly into groups of five. “Almost nobody thinks of creating two teams of six or seven, with some members serving on both,” he said. “Innovative organizations need overlap. It’s not enough to have a person who brokers between teams as a manager.”

Building on his video games research, Stark and his research team have begun studying almost a quarter century of jazz recording sessions— from 1945 to 1969. Among hundreds of thousands of musicians, they are looking for various patterns as people with a diversity of styles come together in a recording session.

Stark believes there is no magic formula for building an innovative team, but encourages managers to be flexible. “Find people with diverse working styles and professional backgrounds. But understand that will increase tension, so you have to find ways to build trust in the organization. That trust can come from having some people on the team who have worked together in the past.”