My nine-year-old son enjoys assembling Lego kits—the kind with complete step-by-step instructions that help kids build structures that look exactly like the picture on the box. This is very different from the way I played with Legos as a child, improvising with an assortment of blocks that could be assembled in any number of ways.
As a creativity researcher, I started to wonder how the well-defined goals and processes of these Lego kits might affect creativity, and, more generally, how engaging in well-defined problem solving affects one’s ability and inclination to handle more ambiguous tasks.
To find out, Marit Gundersen Engeset, associate professor of marketing at Buskerud and Vestfold University College, and I conducted a series of experiments that had subjects build with Lego blocks. Some subjects were asked to assemble kits, and others were told to “build something.” We then measured their performance on subsequent creative tasks.
We found that subjects who tackled the well-defined problem of assembling kits performed worse on subsequent creative tasks than a control group and those who built whatever they felt like building.
It wasn’t the rigidity of the process, but rather the search for a single correct answer that reduced subjects’ creativity, as well as their subsequent desire to perform creative tasks. Those who used the kits tended to prefer other well-defined activities afterward.
This research suggests that well-defined tasks can become a vicious cycle. If you’ve completed a well-defined task, you want to engage in another well-defined task as opposed to something that’s more ambiguous.
We don’t know how durable these effects are or whether they’re cumulative, but it’s important to know that the tasks people engage in can have unintended effects on future work and preferences for work.
This research has several implications. It supports the widespread belief that corporate culture affects creativity and innovation. If focusing on a single correct answer diminishes the drive to be creative, then it would make sense to encourage employees to regularly solve open-ended problems.
Because the mindset of one activity carries over to the next, advertisers should target ads to try to reach consumers when they are likely to be in a mindset similar to the one evoked in the ad. For example, IKEA, which sells furniture that requires some consumer assembly (a well-defined task), might get a better response if its ads were targeted at those engaged in a well-defined task, such as driving home from work as opposed to engaging in leisure activities, which are more open-ended and more likely to inspire creativity.
In addition to its implications for the workplace and for ad placements, this research has implications for decisions about how to teach students. Educators and policymakers should consider the negative effects of emphasizing well-defined problem solving found on standardized tests. It’s possible that teaching only questions with one right answer has contributed to the national decline in creative problem solving skills that has been happening in the U.S. since the early 1990s.
Read more about this topic in our paper “The Downstream Consequences of Problem Solving Mindsets: How Playing with Legos Influences Creativity” in the Journal of Marketing Research.