Why You Should Spend Your Mornings In A Cave

People are most creative when they work without distraction. But what does that mean for the team? Welcome to the cave-dwelling future of collaboration.

Why You Should Spend Your Mornings In A Cave

If you want to be your most creative self, research suggests that you should start your day in a cave–and find a way to make it an expected thing with your team.


Why? Because as Kellogg School of Management professor Leigh Thompson tells Fast Company, people have work styles that range from an independent to an interdependent orientation, sort of like how people are introverts or extroverts, with ambiverts in the middle. The independent worker will kindly ask that you leave her alone while she gets her work done–while the interdependent worker can’t function without being around others.

The thing is, she says, you need both:

“Creativity happens when you work independently,” she says, echoing our finding that insight comes from not having distractions. “Individuals are really good at generating a whole lot of ideas, while groups are good at selecting, shaping, and refining those ideas.”

Unfortunately, the way we structure our days–and our meetings–doesn’t tend to reflect this understanding: Research has shown that people have worse ideas when asked to brainstorm in a meeting rather than when they’re asked to ideate on their own. The new groupthink has already set in, fizzling insights before they’re ready to be uncorked.

Thinking about groupthink

The question, then, is how to prevent groupthink and still bring out the best in the independents and the interdependents among us. We’ve already discussed a way to solve it in meetings, a technique that Thompson calls brainwriting, which is like brainstorming, but instead of getting together and alternately shouting half-baked ideas and staring at each other, you write down your suggestions before you start workshopping them.

That’s great for meetings, but what about our days? How do we structure them in a way that caters to the independents among us–the writer and his manuscript, the programmer and her code, and the like–and how those focused folks can still work well in a group setting?


Enter: the cave and the commons

The best way to tackle this problem, Thompson says, is by designing the office with a cave-and-commons setup. As she talks about in her Creative Conspiracy, it might look like:

. . . private spaces (caves) where one can work without being interrupted by colleagues walking by or cube chatter. . . . And close-by, common areas where team members can pull together for critical face-to-face time. If you take all the caves away, people are distracted and interrupted and creativity falters.

So how do you use the cave well?

Like any relationship, it’s a matter of open communication.

Thompson’s advice: Let the independent start the day in her cave, free of email, drop-in meetings, and other subtle suckers of productivity. Then have everybody assemble around the campfire at a regular hour–like maybe around lunchtime.

“Then everybody knows what to expect and will accomplish more,” she says.

This way, the independents have their independence protected–and the interdependents get their interaction fix.

Bottom Line: Protect the cave–but keep the teamwork.


[Image: Flickr user Matt Matches]


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.