Does Solitude Enhance Creativity? A Critique of Susan Cain’s Attack on Collaboration January 16, 2012Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity, Everyday life, Uncategorized.
Tags: collaboration, groupthink, introversion, introverts, matt ridley, quiet, susan cain
I’ve just read a New York Times article by Susan Cain, author of the forthcoming book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It’s the frustrated cry of a true introvert. Cain is clearly tired of everyone touting the benefits of collaboration; some people, herself included, just want to be left alone. And, she argues, those are the people who really come up with all of the great ideas.
There’s a grain of truth to Cain’s claim: Psychologists who study creativity know that it requires both solitude and collaboration. Exceptional creativity involves a lot of hard work, and that often happens in solitude. But Cain misses the big picture: Researchers have found that breakthrough ideas are largely due to exchange and interaction, and that’s because breakthrough ideas always involve combinations of very different ideas. (Matt Ridley famously calls it “ideas having sex.”)
In 2007, my book Group Genius was partly responsible for what Susan Cain calls dismissively “the rise of the new groupthink.” So I feel like I’ve been called out to respond. Yes, solitude plays a role in the creative process, but Cain overstates her case and misrepresents some of the research. Here are five specific examples of misleading or incorrect statements in her article:
1. Cain says that research by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that exceptional creators are more likely to be introverted. Csikszentmihalyi was my graduate advisor, so I know that what his research actually found is that “Creative people tend to be both extroverted and introverted….[they] exhibit both traits simultaneously.” Reviewing all of the studies of creativity and extroversion using the “five-factor” personality model, most studies don’t show any relation between creativity and either introversion or extraversion. A few studies show a small relation, and for those, it’s always a positive relation between creativity and extraversion. (see my book Explaining Creativity for the details.)
2. Cain argues that Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple with Steve Jobs, is a classic introvert and he’s the one who actually invented the Apple personal computer. She grants that Wozniak never would have had the idea if he hadn’t been exchanging ideas with the Homebrew Computer Club, and he knows that Wozniak’s computer never would have been built and sold if it weren’t for his collaboration with Steve Jobs. It’s true that Wozniak had to go home and build the thing alone…but the real creativity came from collaboration.
And the Macintosh computer–which was a much more innovative product, with the graphic user interface that the one we still use today–resulted from Steve Jobs’ networking and idea exchange with Xerox PARC, the lab where the windows-and-mouse technology was first demonstrated. No solitude story there.
3. Cain is critical of the new trend of using collaborative groups in school classrooms. But in the New York Times article, she doesn’t give any reasons to dislike this, and doesn’t cite any research on the topic (maybe she will in the forthcoming book). Collaboration and learning is one of my research topics, so I know that there’s a huge volume of evidence–going back three decades–showing that collaborative interaction enhances learning. Of course, it has to be done in the right way, and no doubt there are teachers who form student groups in ineffective ways, but you can’t base an argument on a few ineffective teachers.
Regarding learning and mastery, Cain cites Anders Ericsson’s expertise research correctly; that research shows it takes 10,000 hours of mostly solitary practice to become an expert. And I too have argued that this is a prerequisite to a creative life. But that’s not where new ideas come from; that’s just the base of knowledge you need before you’re able to play the game, to combine great ideas and to recognize good ideas.
4. Cain argues that the “Coding War Games” study shows that solitary computer programmers perform better than programmers that don’t get any privacy. But I’ve done studies of pair programming–a core technique of the popular approach known as “extreme coding”–and the research convincingly demonstrates that pair programming results in better computer programs.
5. Cain is absolutely right about the research showing that brainstorming groups generate fewer ideas than the same number of solitary people working alone. But there’s an important exception to this research: if the problems are complex, or if they are visual or spatial, then groups usually outperform solo workers. And in most real-world organizations, problems are pretty complex–not the simple word-generation tasks used in brainstorming experiments.
Cain has read a broad range of important research, and she gets some things right. And she’s smart enough to realize that the more defensible position is that you need both solitude and collaboration. But in her desire to elevate the role of solitude, Cain’s article misrepresents the research. And the research has found just the opposite: collaboration is the key to creativity.
There must be a lot of introverts out there, because when I looked at her book on Amazon.com today, it’s one of the top 100 best selling books. Cain’s book will no doubt appeal to those readers who enjoy solitary work, who’ve sat in endless time-wasting meetings, who did a group project in high school with a bunch of slackers…come to think of it, that pretty much describes everyone, including me! But don’t let yourself be misled by your own bad experiences with groups. The science of creativity shows that exceptional, successful creativity depends on groups, networks, and conversation. If you hole up alone at home, I guarantee you will be less creative.
Cirque du Soleil March 14, 2011Posted by keithsawyer in Genius Groups, Uncategorized.
Tags: choreography, cirque du soleil, collaboration, debra brown, improvisation, mystere, zarkana
add a comment
The process of choreography is surprisingly collaborative and improvisational, and Cirque du Soleil is the perfect example, as demonstrated by a recent interview with Circus Choreographer Debra Brown in the Wall Street Journal*:
When she’s creating a new act, Ms. Brown begins by leading the acrobats in improvisation sessions to see what they can do. Often, new tricks emerge. Routines can come together in as little as a week, or take as long as a month or two to finalize. Shows often evolve after they hit the stage. After a show debuts, the creative team reconvenes to edit numbers and adjust the tricks and choreography. “Improvisation is part of our blood,” Ms. Brown said.
My own research has demonstrated the important element of improvisation in every successful creative collaboration.
Uncertainty plays a big role in Ms. Brown’s creative process. Some of the most impressive stunts in a Cirque show come from unscripted moments in rehearsal.
In a forthcoming book that I edited, Structure and improvisation in creative teaching, my colleague Janice Fournier analyzes interviews she did with professional choreographers, and they all report a similarly collaborative and improvisational process. Dr. Fournier uses their example to draw conclusions about how teachers can teach more effectively, if they build collaborative improvisation into the classroom.
*Alexander Alter, “Cirque du Soleil’s Stunt Woman in Chief,” Wall Street Journal, March 12-13 2011, p. C11.
Collaboration at Cisco August 3, 2009Posted by keithsawyer in Organizational innovation.
Tags: Adam Brant, Cisco, collaboration, John T Chambers, new york times, teamwork
I enjoyed the interview with John T. Chambers, CEO of Cisco, in Sunday’s New York Times (Business section page 2, by Adam Bryant).
When Bryant asked “How has your leadership style evolved over time?” Chambers said this:
I’m a command-and-control person. I like being able to say turn right, and we truly have 67,000 people turn right. But that’s the style of the past. Today’s world requires a different leadership style–more collaboration and teamwork, including using Web 2.0 technologies.
And the final answer echoed this theme too: When asked “What’s changed in the last few years?” Chambers responded:
Big time, the importance of collaboration. Big time, people who have teamwork skills, and their use of technology. If they’re not collaborative, if they aren’t naturally inclined toward collaboration and teamwork…they’re probably not going to fit in here.
Teamwork, the True Mother of Invention December 7, 2008Posted by keithsawyer in Genius Groups.
Tags: brainstorming, collaboration, innovation learning network, janet rae-dupree, kaiser permanente, new york times, pixar
Today’s New York Times (December 7, 2008) has a wonderful article by business columnist Janet Rae-Dupree, with this title (in the print edition, Business section, page 3; the online version has a different title). She starts by quoting what I told her in a recent interview:
Innovation today isn’t a sudden break with the past, a brilliant insight that one lone outsider pushes through to save the company. Just the opposite: innovation today is a continuous process of small and constant change, and it’s built into the culture of successful companies.
Of course, I was delighted to be quoted in the article, but what makes it a great read is that she ties my research in the hands-on experience of many other executives; as she points out about the above quotation, “it’s a perspective shared broadly in corporate America.” She quotes a lot of sources you’ve already read about if you follow my blog: for example, Ed Catmull, president of Pixar, writing about collective creativity in September’s Harvard Business Review. She quotes Drew Boyd, a Cincinnati businessman, describing the brainstorming research that I discuss in my book Group Genius–showing that brainstorming is so often used ineffectively. She talks about how Einstein’s “lone genius” image has been exaggerated, citing Hans Ohanian’s book Einstein’s Mistakes (see my blog entry on that here).
And she closes with an example I didn’t know about: the Innovation Learning Network formed by a dozen health care systems, to exchange innovative ideas. Kaiser Permanente came up with their KP MedRite program as a result of their participation in this network: the goal of KP MedRite is to make sure nurses aren’t interrupted while they’re dispensing medications. The director of the network, Chris McCarthy, concludes that “the group effort allows us to move much more quickly and become successful much faster.”
How Teams Work Together November 11, 2008Posted by keithsawyer in New research.
Tags: academy of management review, collaboration, coordination, emergence, ramon rico, teams, teamwork, work teams
add a comment
I’ve just read a wonderful research article called “Team implicit coordination processes”.* Most studies of how team coordinate have focused on planning and communication; these are both explicit coordination, meanint that everyone is consciously aware of what they’re doing, they’re trying to do it, and they’re talking about it. The authors of this article claim that explicit coordination only explains relatively static teams, when the situation isn’t changing very rapidly. Implicit coordination happens “when team members anticipate the actions and needs of their colleagues…and dynamically adjust their own behavior accordingly, without having to communicate directly with each other or plan the activity” (p. 164).
That’s exactly what goes on in a jazz ensemble or an improv theater group, the super-creative groups that I’ve spent years studying (see my book GROUP GENIUS). Teams have to implicitly coordinate to handle rapidly changing environments when their tasks are highly interdependent; teams that are implicitly coordinating talk a lot less about what they’re doing and what they should do next. (This reminded me of a conversation I had at Harvard recently with Professor Rob Huckman, who has studied surgical teams. Surgeons say that in the best teams, no one is talking…that’s implicit coordination!)
Teams that have this down do four things: (1) each member provides task-relevant information even before they are asked for it; (2) team members share the workload without being asked; (3) everyone is monitoring the progress of the activity and the performance of their teammates; and (4) each person adapts behavior to what they expect the others will do.
The authors argue that implicit coordination can only work if the group creates an “emergent team-level knowledge structure” that they call a team situation model. The model includes shared knowledge like the team’s goal and the roles of each participant. Because of my own studies of social emergence, I agree when the authors claim that the situation model is “an emergent group property characterizing the team as a whole” (see my 2005 book SOCIAL EMERGENCE for more details).
*Ramon Rico, Miriam Sanchez-Manzanares, Francisco Gil, and Cristina Gibson. 2008. “Team implicit coordination processes: A team knowledge-based approach.” Academy of Management Review, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 163-184.
Einstein’s genius September 5, 2008Posted by keithsawyer in New research.
Tags: collaboration, creativity, Einstein, Einstein's mistakes, genius, Max von Laue, Ohanian, special relativity
When I give lectures, whether to the general public or to a business audience, my take-home message is that creativity is always collaborative. I make a strong claim: that no significant creation ever comes from an isolated, lone genius. Instead, it always takes multiple contributions over time, and creators always work within collaborative webs.
This is hard for many people to accept, because we’ve all heard so many stories about the isolated lone genius. So when I’m done with my talk, and ready to accept questions from the audience, I always get one question something like this: “What about (insert famous historical creator here)? Didn’t he work completely alone?” Now it’s impossible for me to know every biography of every inventor, but after doing this for many years my audience tends to bring up the same names. One of the names that comes up frequently is Albert Einstein. Many people learned that he did his Nobel-prize winning work while working full-time in a customs office. His crazy hair and casual dress fit pretty well with our stereotype of the lone genius.
So I’m delighted to learn of a new book about Einstein, Einstein’s Mistakes, by Hans C. Ohanian, that makes it very clear that Einstein did not work alone. Take the formula E=mc squared, which you can find on T-shirts underneath Einstein’s image. It turns out that Einstein didn’t discover this equation; it was known for years before his 1905 paper. But no one had worked out the math to prove that the equation was right; that’s what Einstein was trying to do in the paper. But Einstein’s math skills weren’t so great, and he made several critical mistakes. It wasn’t until 1911 that another physicist, Max von Laue, developed a full and correct proof.
This wasn’t an isolated story, either, according to Ohanian’s book: pretty much all of Einstein’s publications were incomplete and contained errors. Other physicists, very few of them with such famous names, put it all together and made sure everything worked.
The point isn’t to tear down Einstein’s reputation; Ohanian still believes he deserves a lot of credit. He often had the right instincts, even if other people had to come along later to prove he had been right. But his instincts were often wrong, too–for example, his futile search for a unified field theory over the last decades of his life.
I like the E=mc squared story because it matches perfectly everything we know about how new ideas occur: although we tell ourselves a story of a great genius who sees it all in a blinding flash of insight, in fact the real story is always one of small contributions, over long periods of time, with different people making each small contribution. Einstein didn’t come up with E=mc squared, and he didn’t even prove it was correct. He played an important role in a collaborative web of multiple scientists working on the problem, and he deserves credit for that. But that’s a lot less flashy than the myths we tell about the lone genius.
The Architecture of Solitude June 27, 2008Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity.
Tags: architecture, collaboration, cubicles, design, office space, seigle hall, washington university
The big news this week is that my department has moved to a new building on our campus. If you have read my book GROUP GENIUS, you know that I have quite a bit to say about building architecture and office design (for example, see my post “The building that threw up on itself”). What kinds of offices foster creativity and collaboration? They are offices that support flexible work arrangements and frequent spontaneous reconfigurations, of people, furniture, walls, and cubicles. In innovative organizations, you find a blend of solo work, work in pairs, and collaborative teams. But most of today’s offices are designed to support only one kind of work: solitary work, alone in an office (or a cubicle). In innovative organizations, people are always moving around, bumping unexpectedly into others, and stopping for a few minutes to chat. Offices that support these natural connections have chairs and tables in the hallways or near the stairways, to make such conversations easier.
But there’s a problem. In a typical organization, everyone wants a private office. A bigger office is even better. And once the architects have finished giving everyone what they want–a nice private office–there’s no room left over for anything else other than halls and stairways to take them from the front door to their office. And that’s exactly what’s happened in my new building. I love my own office, and I’m sure everyone else does, too.
But there are no spaces to foster collaboration–no nooks in the hallways, no reconfigurable furniture or walls. We have a lounge with the coffee machine and frig, which is nice; and another function room which is very nice (but I wonder if it will be locked and require administrative approval to use?). But these spaces do not support spontaneous conversation and collaboration.
I have often said that university bureaucracies don’t look anything like the most innovative organizations. And when you walk inside most any university office building, you’ll see this right away: when you look down a long corridor and see a row of office doors running down each side. The challenge is: How can we convince everyone–employees, managers, and architects–to change their expectations and see the benefits of a new office design paradigm?
(Note: both photos in this post were taken while I was standing in the same spot, at the head of our new office hallway.)
Innovation = Learning May 3, 2008Posted by keithsawyer in Innovative networks, New research.
Tags: adaptability, collaboration, dialogue, improvisation, innovation, organizational learning
Innovation is the flavor of the month; has been for more than a few months now. Organizational learning is another management trend–it refers to the ability of an organization to learn–to become more effective over time, to develop new knowledge and retain it to respond to future situations. What both innovation and learning have in common is adaptability and improvisationality.
In an article in the Fall 2007 issue of Sloan Management Review, Joaquín Alegre and Ricardo Chiva studied organizations high in organizational learning capability (OLC) and identified five core features of high OLC companies: experimentation, risk taking, interaction with the external environment, dialogue and participative decision making. This is fascinating because in my research, I’ve found that these five characteristics also hold true of organizations that use the power of collaboration to generate innovation.
(1) Experimentation, as defined by these authors, produces a flow of new ideas that challenge the established order. (2) Risk taking is just what it sounds like: the tolerance for ambiguity and errors. And as I’ve found, innovative organizations foster idea generation and tolerate failure.
(3) Interaction with the external environment is what I call “collaborating with customers” and is associated with innovative networks that I call collaborative webs in my book Group Genius. Deborah Ancona, in her 2007 book X-Teams, has likewise discovered that successful teams have an outward focus, and strong social network ties with people outside of their team.
(4) Dialogue and (5) participative decision making are what I call improvisation–a style of communication and an organizational culture that is egalitarian, open to flows across status levels. Improvisational organizations excel at a type of dialogue that opens up possibilities, a style of conversation in which new and unexpected ideas emerge.
I firmly believe that organizations high in learning ability are more likely to be innovative organizations, and I’m delighted to read of this fascinating study confirming the link.