Elaborative Play: A Study of Crystallizing Nascent Ideas in Experimental Circus Groups
Management & Human Resources
Speaker: Sarah Harvey
UCL School of Management
Idea elaboration is a unique and critical part of collective creativity and innovation. When nascent ideas first arise, they are vague and ill-formed, and they become crystallized (defined and comprehensible) through collaborative idea elaboration. Elaboration is therefore essential for collectively figuring out what an idea is. Whereas past research has examined the creative work groups engage in while trying to elaborate ideas, it has yet to explain how a particular nascent idea crystallizes during that process. That oversight is practically and theoretically important because traditional elaborative activities may not crystalize ideas, and may even make them harder to decipher. We thus ask: How do groups crystallize a particular nascent idea, moving it forward to bring the idea into focus and make it more comprehensible during collective elaborative processes? To address this question, we conducted an inductive qualitative study of experimental circus groups in the early phases of creating new shows (R&D) using field observations of nine circus groups over 10 months (approximately 360 hours), 9 focus groups and 30 individual semi-structured interviews. We found that much of groups’ time was spent on elaborative work through which they generated, bounded, and refined ideas. However, those activities alone seldom moved any particular idea forward and, paradoxically, progressively made crystalizing ideas more difficult. Instead, ideas crystalized during rare and emergent episodes of elaborative play, during which members became engrossed in the process in a way that it momentarily became decoupled from their intentional pursuit of creating a circus show. By revealing elaborative play as a way of crystalizing ideas, our study inverts the previously theorized relationship between work and play, and suggests that, because ideas lack inherent qualities until they are crystalized, the selection environment for crystalizing ideas is local and based on emotion and intuition rather than rational analysis.