Creativity, Imagination + Innovation April 29, 2011Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity.
Tags: lori custadero, margaret crocco, steven johnson
Today I was a participant in a fascinating symposium at Teachers College in New York City: the “Creativity, Imagination + Innovation Symposium.” Professors Margaret Crocco and Lori Custadero organized a very creative event, which opened on Thursday evening with a performance by the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe, and ended tonight with a jazz quartet.
Today’s events included a morning seminar where I spoke about creativity and education, and an afternoon talk by Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From (which I endorse because it makes a very similar argument to my 2007 book Group Genius; Johnson even reprises my story about Charles Darwin and the origin of the theory of evolution).
I hope that this is just the beginning of a new initiative at Teachers College (and at Columbia University) to make creativity a more central part of university life.
MIT Technology Review 50 Most Innovative Companies April 21, 2011Posted by keithsawyer in Organizational innovation.
Tags: innovation ranking, innovative companies, technology review
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The Technology Review March/April issue contains the second annual list of “the world’s most innovative technology companies”. Unlike other rankings, like Business Week and Fast Company, the fifty are not ranked; they’re just grouped into Public Companies and Private Companies. An asterisk indicates that the company is new to the list this year:
- A123 Systems
- First Solar
- ARM Holdings*
- American Superconductor
- Applied Materials
- Complete Genomics
- Life Technologies*
- Pacific Biosciences
- BrightSource Energy*
- Joule Unlimited
- Silver Spring Networks*
- Synthetic Genomics
- 1366 Technologies
- Lyric Semiconductor*
- Lattice Power*
- Serious Materials
- Bind Biosciences
- Cellular Dynamics International*
- Claros Diagnostics*
Sand Dune Teams April 18, 2011Posted by keithsawyer in New research.
Tags: innovation labs, Richard hackman, sand dune teams
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In my 2007 book Group Genius, I showed that the most innovative organizations were improvisational and team-focused. Early in the book, I tell how W. L. Gore developed the Elixir brand of guitar strings, with a team that formed spontaneously and unofficially. In Chapters 8 and 9, I describe many companies that create temporary, cross-disciplinary teams to foster innovation (I call them “innovation labs”).
Now, I’ve just learned that the leading guru of teams research, J. Richard Hackman, believes that these improvisational, emergent, and fluid teams are the wave of the future.* He calls them “sand dune teams” to indicate that they are impermanent. His key points echo my 2007 book:
- These teams are best for “fast-changing contexts in which surprise is the rule”.
- They often emerge in emergencies (There’s a lot of research showing the role of improvisation in emergency and disaster response; in Group Genius, I begin Chapter 2 by telling a story about the 1980 Naples earthquake).
- They do best when they operate in organizational units of 30 people or less, so that “unitwide norms and routines” can be shared.
Hackman argues that we need a lot more research on these teams:
We have not yet identified the minimum conditions needed for sand dune teams. We don’t know what additional features and technologies would help them manage themselves well. Nor do we know whether such teams are feasible when their members are not colocated.
I agree that this is an exciting topic for future research in organizational behavior. I’m not thrilled by the “sand dune team” metaphor, however, because it suggests that the teams form in response to external forces largely outside of their control. My own research suggests, in contrast, that there’s an internal logic to the improvisational and emergent processes whereby such teams form; and, that organizations can take concrete steps to foster the effective formation of such emergent teams.
I look forward to future studies on this topic published by Professor Hackman.
*Hackman, J. R. 2011. Managing work by ever-shifting teams. The HBR Agenda 2011, p. 11.
Polymaths No More? April 7, 2011Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity.
Tags: Intelligent Life, polymath, specialization, Thomas Young
An article in Intelligent Life (August 2009) bemoans the “endangered species,” the polymath–a person who is successful at many different pursuits. In contrast to the narrow specialists who seem to rule today’s world, polymaths contribute to many different specialties throughout their careers. Past centuries had plenty of polymaths (perhaps Leonardo Da Vinci is the prototype). Take Thomas Young, an English polymath who worked in the late 1700s and early 1800s. He showed light is a wave, not just a particle; he described how the eye focuses at different distances; he contributed to materials science and its understanding of elasticity; he studied the grammar of 400 languages and coined the term “Indo-European”; he even “tinkered around with life insurance” according to the article.
But of course, back in 1800 there was a lot less knowledge overall. One could acquire a working knowledge of a discipline (materials science, optics and the eye, life insurance) just by reading the few books that had been written on the topic. Today all of these fields have had another 200 years of knowledge created. That’s why creativity researchers have observed a “ten year rule”: that it seems to take ten years of working away in one specialized domain before you can make a significant creative contribution. (This rule was first published in the 19th century, when a study of telegraph operators found that the best operators had ten years of experience.) Ten years roughly corresponds to Professor Anders Ericsson’s finding that it takes 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to attain world-class expertise.
And over time, as new knowledge is created and total knowledge accumulates, it should take longer to become an expert. Benjamin Jones (of the Kellogg School of Management) calculated the average age a person was granted a Nobel Prize, and examined how that changed over time. And sure enough: Nobel recipients in 1998 were on average six years older than those granted in 1873.
So is this a problem to worry about, or not? After all, specialization has resulted in marvelous things that no one in 1800 could have dreamed of. The one potential problem is that creativity so often comes by joining concepts from two or more different areas–so if everyone only knows one area, this creative combination might never happen. I can think of at least two possible solutions: (1) create collaborative teams that bring together people with different backgrounds; (2) educate “T-Shaped” people, who are highly specialized in one area (the vertical bar of the “T”) but who also are passingly familiar with lots of other areas (the horizontal bar). And in general, we’ll all be more creative if we choose one area to focus our expertise, but also if we actively seek out familiarity with everything else. I’ll coin an awkward saying: