Psychological bricolage enables people to combine knowledge from their different social identities to enhance their creativity and find innovative solutions.
Research has shown that creativity and innovation come from combining seemingly unrelated or irrelevant knowledge. You can create the context for combining unrelated knowledge by bringing together people with diverse backgrounds and knowledge. Thus, diversity (which might be based on race or gender but also on profession or function) is often sought in brainstorming teams.
However, unrelated knowledge also exists within individuals. Bringing together unrelated knowledge is what University of Michigan professors Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks and Fiona Lee, along with Matthew Karlesky of Suffolk University, call ‘psychological bricolage.’ The term bricolage refers to cobbling together different pieces to make something new.
For example, when typewriters still ruled the office, secretary Betty Nesmith Graham found a way to overcome the challenge of typos: she used her experience as an amateur artist to create a fast drying paint that could be brushed over the error and typed over (the new product was marketed as ‘liquid paper’).
Graham’s breakthrough was made possible because Graham combined knowledge from two of her social identities. Social identities are the social groups by which we define ourselves or to which we belong, such as groups related to our race, gender, religion, profession, community, or organization. Different social identities — being a manager and being a parent, for example — are tied to different sets of experiences and knowledge. Graham was a secretary, but she was also an amateur artist. Drawing from both of these social identities allowed her to develop her creative solution.
However, replicating Graham’s feat — which involves accessing the knowledge and experience from disparate social identities — is not as easy as it sounds.
The principal problem relates to the context in which social identities are accessed. You might, for example, access your professional social identity in the office, your parent social identity at home, and your football fan social identity at the stadium or during a match on television.
The issue of context is tied to the difference between insider and outsider social identities. For example, in a corporate strategy meeting, your social identity as a manager is an insider social identity (shared with the other managers at the table and relevant to the context of the meeting). Social identities tied to such things as being a volleyball player or a woman or a mom are outsider social identities, which are irrelevant to the meeting.
Graham’s success emerged when at the office she combined her insider social identity (secretary) and her outsider social identity (artist). Many people, however, prefer to compartmentalize or separate their social identities, pushing the knowledge and experiences of outsider social identities to the background — especially when the insider and outsider social identities are seen as conflicting, such as being a woman in a male-dominated industry. Many people, in sum, are reticent about engaging in psychological bricolage, despite proof that incorporating the knowledge and skills from outsider social identities could enhance their creativity and innovation.
However, other people, echoing Graham’s attitude, do not see their insider and outsider identities as incompatible, and are therefore less reticent about activating outsider identities. In psychological terms, such people are said to have ‘high Identity Integration or high II.’ People who feel their social identities are in conflict and prefer to keep them separate are said to have ‘low II.’
Which brings us to this observation: Had Betty Nesmith Graham had low II, who knows how many wads of angrily crumpled paper would have ended up in 20th century office wastebaskets, until the personal computer came to the rescue.
Given the creativity benefit of outsider social identities, organizations must take proactive steps to encourage psychological bricolage, especially from low II individuals. One method is modelled by Google’s requirement for engineers to spend 20% of their time on personal projects — literally forcing them to put their insider social identities on the shelf. Even just asking employees to talk or think about outsider identities can make them more salient (i.e., relevant) to the workplace.
Studies show that external cues can be surprisingly effective in breaking down psychological barriers to outsider identity integration. For example, allowing people to work outside the office or even simply allowing casual wear at the office can help activate outsider identities.
Ironically, simply ‘exposing’ people to outsider identities — for instance, training people outside the organization for them to learn best practices from another company — can be counterproductive. Since your employees don’t identify with the other company’s practices, such attempts can only reinforce the differences between insiders and outsiders (between the way ‘they’ do things, and the way ‘we’ do things).
One final complication may be deciding which outsider identity to integrate into an office environment. The best answer: don’t ask. Bring them all in. In psychological terms, this type of all-social-identities-welcomed attitude is known as general Identity Identification. People high in general II are the aces of psychological bricolage.
Psychological Bricolage: Integrating Social Identities to Produce Creative Solutions. Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, Matthew J. Karlesky & Fiona Lee. The Oxford Handbook of Creativity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship (May 13, 2015).
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