How To Fly a Horse: Another Book on Creativity

I really enjoyed a new book on creativity, How To Fly a Horse, by Kevin Ashton. He echoes what I’ve been saying for the last ten years:

  • The flash of insight is a myth;
  • Instead, creativity emerges from many small sparks, that occur over time.
  • Creativity comes from hard work over a sustained period of time so that these successive small sparks lead to successful innovation.
  • All of this is great news, because it means that everyone has the potential to be creative–because it’s not about geniuses being blessed with divine inspiration, it’s about putting in the time and the work.

I have a minor quibble with Ashton’s subtitle, “The secret history of creation, invention, and discovery” because Ashton’s main reveal is not a secret any more. It’s conventional wisdom. For example, two recent books by Steven Johnson (2010) and Walter Isaacson (2014) make the same point, and tell many of the same stories. A lot of what appears in Ashton’s book is in my 2007 book Group Genius or my 2012 book Explaining Creativity. (His title, about flying a horse, refers to the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903; I start the first page of Group Genius with this story.) But still, Ashton is a great scholarly detective. His book is the only place I’ve seen, other than my 2012 book, the debunking of the myths about Archimedes in the bathtub shouting Eureka, about Mozart composing musical pieces in whole cloth, about Coleridge writing Kubla Khan in an opium daze, about Kekule coming up with the benzene ring structure in a dream…actually, maybe Ashton just read my 2012 debunking blog post here (or Ashton could have gotten the real stories from my 2012 Explaining Creativity, which he cites in his references but otherwise doesn’t mention).

This is a well written book, and in addition to the familiar creativity stories and research, I learned some things I didn’t know, like this factoid: You know how we use a light bulb over someone’s head to show they’re having a sudden flash of insight? That image was first used in a 1919 animated film short with Felix the Cat.

I like the book, but if you’re not a creativity nerd like me, and you’re looking for one book to enlighten you about creativity, this isn’t the best book to read to increase your creativity. One weakness is that it’s a series of stories without any guiding structure, without an easy to remember set of practical advice, and without take-home messages. There’s one single message (which I agree with) and it’s that creativity isn’t a genius flash of insight; it’s a series of small sparks that emerge from hard work. But that’s not really new any more.

Here’s what I wrote in my 2007 book Group Genius:

We’re drawn to the image of the lone genius whose mystical moment of insight changes the world. But the lone genius is a myth. Innovation always emerges from a series of sparks–never a single flash of insight. (p. 7) Creativity is based in everyday thought. There’s no magical moment of insight, no mysterious subconscious incubation working. (p. 97)

I love that Ashton calls the creative process a “maze” with many steps (p. 64); in my 2013 book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity I developed a very similar visual metaphor, the zig zag:

Creativity does not descend like a bolt of lightning that lights up the world in a single, brilliant flash. It comes in tiny steps, bits of insight, and incremental changes. Zigs and zags. (p. 2)

I wish Ashton had channeled his talent for storytelling with more structure, and had organized his historical material into themes. That would have helped him provide practical advice for the reader. But if you’re a creativity nerd, you need to read this book. There’s a lot of familiar material here (Karl Duncker, the Wright Brothers, Rosalind Franklin and DNA, brainstorming research, Gregor Mendel, Louis Terman, Teresa Amabile…) but a lot of intriguing new stories, as well.

Marc Andreessen on Group Genius

Marc Andreesen, the Silicon Valley investor, has just published a free e-book containing his blog posts from 2007 to 2009. This excerpt from the book was just published in the Wall Street Journal–titled “retaining great people”. It’s really advice about how to build an innovative organization:

Don’t create a new group or organization within your company whose job is “innovation”. This takes various forms, but it happens reasonably often, and it’s hugely damaging. It sends the terrible message to the rest of the organization that you think they’re the B team. Instead, focus on boosting the innovation culture of the entire company.*

How do you get the whole company to innovate? I give the answer in my 2007 book, Group Genius:

Many companies say that they believe in empowering their employees through participation. But too often, participation is little more than a strategy to increase employee job satisfaction or to get their buy-in for senior management decisions. Real participatory companies are collaborative, improvisational, emerging from the bottom up. It’s a radical rethinking of the organization, and most companies aren’t willing to go there just yet. But as innovation becomes ever more important, there won’t be any other choice. (p. 155)

The reason you have to spread innovation throughout the organization is because innovation today isn’t linear. That’s why you can’t separate out the “idea stage” from the “execution stage”:

The skunk works model places all its hopes on one big flash of inspiration that must come from a select group of special people. In fact, successful innovative companies keep these small sparks coming from individuals throughout the organization, each spark inspiring the next one. (p. 159)

In Group Genius, I tell you the ten features of the most innovative organizations, grounded in this emergent, up bottom approach to innovation. That’s why Andreesen is right; not (only) because the skunk works approach damages morale, but because it never actually generates innovation.

*Andreeasen, The Pmarca Blog Archives.

The Monopoly Game: An Example of Group Genius

1906 Lizzie Magie production copy
Lizzie Magie’s 1906 Landlord’s Game

Today’s New York Times has an article by Mary Pilon, excerpted from her new book The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game. It’s a great story:

Parker Brothers lied when they claimed that Charles Darrow invented the game Monopoly in 1934. In fact, Darrow stole the game from a group of Quakers who played their hand-made game in Atlantic City. Similar versions of the game had been played, up and down the East Coast and in the Midwest, since 1904, when a Virginia Quaker named Lizzie Magie was awarded a patent for a precursor game she created to teach the virtues of an economic philosophy known as the “single tax system.” She called it The Landlord’s Game. (She self-published the version at left in 1906 after Parker Brothers passed on it.)

This story isn’t so new anymore; it’s been told in many books and articles. I told this story in my 2007 book Group Genius, because it’s a great example of how wrong our “solo inventor” stories are, and how invention really emerges from collaboration and social networks. When I was writing my book in 2006, it was easy to find the real story. It first came to light in the 1970s, when Parker Brothers sued Ralph Anspach to force him to stop selling his game Anti-Monopoly. Parker Brothers picked the wrong fight: Anspach fought back, and won his lawsuit by having some very old Quakers testify that they’d been playing the game long before 1934.

Charles Todd's handmade game, stolen by Charles Darrow
Todd’s 1933 Handmade Game, Stolen by Charles Darrow

One of them, Charles Todd, stated under oath in 1976 that he personally made a copy for Darrow–and, at his request, wrote down the rules (they’d only been transmitted orally prior to Darrow’s request). After stealing it and patenting it, Darrow hid from Todd whenever they crossed paths; when you read Todd’s 1976 court testimony, you can still tell he’s angry over 40 years later.

I learned the story in 2006 from several sources:

(If you really want to go deep, the best source for historical details is this web site: http://landlordsgame.info/)

Pilon’s book covers familiar ground, but it’s a fascinating story that bears retelling. I’ve told this story in keynote talks around the U.S., and audiences are always surprised, so I agree the true story isn’t well known. Pilon’s been working on the book for a long time; she wrote a similar article in 2009 for the Wall Street Journal. She’s uncovered a lot of fascinating historical detail, and has a lot of biographical info about Lizzie Magie that I didn’t know; turns out, she was extremely unconventional for her time (it goes way beyond advocating the single tax).

Pilon ends her New York Times article by asking a question that I answer in Group Genius:

Who should get credit for an invention and how? The Monopoly game raises that question in a particularly compelling way.

The answer is, the collaborative web should get the credit:

The game of Monopoly that we know and love today was created over many decades–with contributions from Quakers, fraternity boys, economics professors, and one radiator repairman. It unfolded in cities from Indianapolis to Philadelphia. Monopoly emerged from a collaborative web, a diffuse and informal network of people dedicated to the game. Each group of players modified the rules as they saw fit, but no one ever owned anything. The ideas spread around freely, and the ideas that worked best survived. Parker Brothers contributed by spotting the potential, and by packaging and marketing it to success. And even after Parker Brothers printed the official rules, players continued to make up their own rules, a tradition that continues today. (Group Genius)

If that sounds like an open source community, you’re right; read my book to learn the key features of collaborative networks, from 1904 to today.

The Monopoly story is endlessly fascinating. In fact, Parker Brothers initially rejected Darrow’s game, and he eventually convinced them to change their minds: you’ll have to read my book to learn how he did it! (Hint: entrepreneurship…)

Montessori, Collaboration, and Creativity

WP_20150214_003I had a great time giving this morning’s keynote at the annual Montessori teacher’s conference (NAMTA). They invited me to talk about how to foster creativity and collaboration in high school classrooms.

In my keynote, I gave an overview of the core lessons from my creativity research, combined with my learning sciences research:

  • Creative learning is active
  • Creative learning is collaborative
  • Creative learning engages with projects in real-world contexts
  • Creative learning is artfully guided and structured by the teacher and the designed learning environment

Then, I gave some practical advice for how to make this happen by overcoming challenges faced when you try to do this in any school environment. I provided a few case studies of learning environments that are doing creative education very well (like the San Francisco Exploratorium).

One of the things I always associate with Montessori is the distinctive custom-designed manipulatives, most of them created by Dr. Maria Montessori herself. So I had fun browsing the vendor displays, where you can buy famous things like the pink tower (it’s at the left).WP_20150214_002

 

 

 

 

My message resonated loud and clear with the audience of Montessori educators. Many of them came up to my afterwards and said “You really helped me understand better what we need to do when we use Montessori methods to teach adolescents.” My latest book, Zig Zag, sold well at the book signing after my talk. I hope the creativity techniques in the book will give teachers ideas for how to help their students be more creative!WP_20150214_004

Group Genius: Radical in 2007, Conventional Wisdom Today

In 2007, my book Group Genius made a radical claim: The discipline of psychology could never explain creativity, because creativity emerges from collaborative groups and networks. In 2007, this put me at odds with most of my creativity research colleagues; they studied solitary individuals. And it was a bit cutting edge for the business world, too; most business books were still focused on enhancing the creative potential of each employee:

We’re drawn to the image of the lone genius whose mystical moment of insight changes the world. But the lone genius is a myth; instead, it’s group genius that generates breakthrough innovation. Collaboration drives creativity because innovation always emerges from a series of sparks–never a single flash of insight. (p. 7)

My timing turned out to be perfect for the business world. In 2007, top executives were beginning to realize that collaboration was the key to innovation. They were eager to learn about my seven key characteristics of effective creative teams and companies:

  1. Innovation emerges over time
  2. Successful collaborative teams practice deep listening
  3. Team members build on their collaborator’s ideas
  4. Only afterwards does the meaning of each idea become clear
  5. Surprising questions emerge
  6. Innovation is inefficient
  7. Innovation emerges from the bottom up

In recent years, several new books have appeared that reinforce my argument: Great creativity always emerges over time, from collaborative pairs, teams, and distributed networks. I’ve just read two wonderful books that make a particularly strong case for collaborative creativity:

Both books are wonderfully written. They are true to the science and the historical record. Each of them have turned up surprising and little-known details about creativity. If you read these books, along with Group Genius, you’ll have a really good understanding of what science has discovered about innovation.

Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From

Johnson’s central claim is that good ideas don’t come from inside some genius’s brain:

If we want to understand where good ideas come from, we have to put them in context. The argument of this book is that a series of shared properties and patterns recur again and again in unusually fertile environments. (p. 17)

In the last three chapters of Group Genius, I describe the “collaborative webs” that foster innovation, and the characteristics of environments that make them grow. Johnson’s book builds on my work, and adds in some really fascinating stories. (He comes to the same conclusion that I do about what sort of intellectual property law regime results in the greatest innovation.) Consistent with my seven points above, he argues that innovation emerges from tinkering and bricolage. The most innovative environments are like my collaborative webs:

Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts. (p. 35) [These environments have] a capacity to make new connections with as many other elements as possible. And a “randomizing” environment that encourages collisions between all the elements in the system. (p. 51) The most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans at a table. (p. 61)

Johnson cites a lot of the same research that I do, and tells many of the same stories (Kevin Dunbar’s research; Gruber’s book about Darwin’s notebooks; brainstorming research; Burt’s research on structural holes; MIT’s Building 20). He echoes my concept of group flow with his term collective flow (both of us building on Dr. Csikszentmihalyi).

Johnson’s book is a fascinating read; he’s a great storyteller. In the last chapter, he comes to the same conclusion that I did in 2007:

A majority of breakthrough ideas emerge in collaborative environments. (p. 228)

Walter Isaacson, The Innovators

Isaacson’s book focuses more narrowly–on the technology innovations that resulted in today’s tablet, smartphone, networked world. We sometimes take this world for granted, but it didn’t exist just a few years ago. I’m surprised to see how well Isaacson’s book is selling, because it’s highly detailed and very focused. Maybe there are more nerds out there that I realized! Personally, I loved it, because I participated in this history. I arrived at MIT in 1978, and received my computer science degree in 1982. I did my undergraduate thesis on MIT’s version of the Xerox PARC Smalltalk computer, the LISP Machine, so I was using a windows and mouse interface as early as 1980. I played the original video game, Space War, in the MIT student center. I remember how cool it was to use the Arpanet and log in to computers all over the world (one country I remember logging into was Norway). There were no passwords and no security; when I wanted to read a draft of Professor Marvin Minsky’s new book, I just went into his personal file folders and read his drafts. I met Richard Stallman, who tried to get me to participate in his “Free Unix!” project. Isaacson’s book was perfect for me.

Chapter after chapter, he takes up the core innovations: Computer hardware. Software and programming. Microchips. Video games. The Internet. The personal computer. And every single one emerged from collaboration:

The main lesson to draw from the birth of computers is that innovation is usually a group effort, involving collaboration between visionaries and engineers, and that creativity comes from drawing on many sources. Only in storybooks do inventions come like a thunderbolt, or a lightbulb popping out of the head of a lone individual in a basement or a garret or a garage. (p. 85)

The formation of ideas was shaped more by the iterative interplay within the group than by an individual tossing in a wholly original concept. The sparks come from ideas rubbing against each other rather than as bolts out of the blue. (p. 110)

As with Johnson’s book, Isaacson tells several of the same stories I tell in Group Genius: Xerox PARC, Richard Stallman and GNU/Linux, how the windows-and-mouse interface emerged from successive incremental ideas. He comes to the same conclusion I did in 2007:

First and foremost is that creativity is a collaborative process. Innovation comes from teams more often than from the lightbulb moments of lone geniuses. (p. 479)

Like any author, I hope that my book stands the test of time. Group Genius contains many stories that aren’t in these books: The creation of the airplane, the mountain bike, the Monopoly boardgame, emergency and disaster response teams, Honda’s motorcycles, basketball teams, the ATM cash machine, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and more. And, I tend to provide a bit more practical advice for how to use this research to be more creative. So if you like these two books, I hope you’ll read mine too!

It’s About the Group, Genius

But what about those moments when you have a sudden realization, you get an idea while taking a walk, you experience a flash of insight? Isn’t that still really about solitary processes within your own private brain? No:

Researchers have discovered that the mind itself is filled with a kind of internal collaboration, that even the insights that emerge when you’re completely alone can be traced back to previous collaborations. (Group Genius, p. xii)

Forget the myths about historical inventors; the truth is always a story of group genius. (Group Genius, p. xiii)

Standing against this new consensus about how creativity and innovation work, many of my creativity research colleagues remain focused on individual creativity. If you skim the pages of the Creativity Research Journal, you’ll see almost exclusively psychological research that focuses on mental processes inside the minds of solitary people. But this narrow focus is holding us back, as I write at the end of Group Genius:

If you believe that creativity is reserved for special geniuses, you’re more likely to think that you can’t be creative. If you believe that creativity is an unexplainable gift that happens in a magical flash of insight, you won’t invest in the hard and sustained work that it takes to generate a long string of small sparks. If you believe that creativity happens to nonconforming, solo operators, you won’t work together with others to build group genius. (p. 225-226)

We need an interdisciplinary science of creativity, one that brings together psychologists with scholars who study groups, teams, and collaborative webs in organizations. Here’s what I hoped for in my 2012 overview of creativity research, Explaining Creativity:

Creativity research in the future will be increasingly interdisciplinary, bringing together scientists who are experts in multiple levels of analysis–neurons, mental states, groups, and organizations. An interdisciplinary science of creativity has the potential to provide a more complete scientific explanation of how new things emerge from human activity. (pp. 432-433)

Other books about collaborative creativity

My 2007 book wasn’t the first to emphasis the power of collaboration. I built on prior work by adding insights from my own scientific research, on jazz ensembles and improv theater groups, using interaction analysis methodology, and I wove it together with some cool case studies. Prior books that I loved include:

Some books after 2008 that jive with Group Genius include:

If You’re an Innovator, You Should Switch to Microsoft Windows

In 2012, Microsoft came up with the first innovation in personal computer operating systems in almost 40 years.

Not Apple. Not Google.

Microsoft.

Windows 8, released by Microsoft in 2012, is the first new user interface since Xerox PARC created the mouse-and-windows desktop visual metaphor in the 1970s. That was long before we had smartphones and touch screens and the cloud. For Windows 8, instead of incremental innovation, Microsoft chose the path of radical innovation. They asked: What would a user interface look like if we started from scratch? If we designed for touch screens and smartphones and tablets and cloud connected devices, instead of big chunky office computers?

Of course, the icons would be bigger, making them easier to touch. (Those tiny icons are designed to be clicked by a mouse, not touched by a finger.)

That means you’d have to ditch the desktop background, but that’s just wasted space anyway.

Now that the icons are bigger, you can display useful information on the icons.

You’d make everything big enough to touch with your finger, and you wouldn’t need a mouse or a touchpad anymore.

Everything would automatically sync between devices through the cloud.

This is exactly what Microsoft did with Windows 8 in 2012, and after two years using these devices, I’m convinced the user experience is far superior. In 2013, my Windows XP devices were old, I was moving to a new job, and I was ready for a completely new set of hardware. I considered going all in with new Apple devices; I had an iPhone and I loved it. And then, I considered Windows 8, and I realized pretty quickly that it’s a better design for today’s computer devices–especially mobile devices.

Surface Pro

I purchased a Windows 8 phone, two Windows 8 desktop computers (one for home and one for the office), a Windows Pro Surface tablet, and a Lenovo Yoga. From day one, everything worked seamlessly and I’ve never looked back. I especially love using the tablets (Surface and Yoga) and the smartphone. (Often when I flip over my Lenovo Yoga, someone in the meeting will give it a look of fascination, and ask “Is that an Apple?”) Across all five devices, everything syncs automatically: my Outlook contacts and calendar and email, my documents. And I have one seamless user experience. (Try touching your finger on the screen on your Apple computer.)

Who knows why Apple and Google (with Android) didn’t use good design thinking and take the path of radical innovation? I generally respect those companies and they’ve generated some awesome innovations. But with computing devices, Apple and Google have chosen the path of incremental innovation. Let’s all thank Microsoft for breaking out of the industry’s groupthink.

Like many innovators, Microsoft got a lot of hate for breaking the conventional mold. A lot of people were used to holding their mouses all day long, and they got confused. Developers often don’t release their apps for Windows phones (only 3 percent of smartphone sales). Many tech reporters call Windows 8 an “international calamity” or much worse. They should know better.

People were used to a simple formula: Apple equals innovation, Microsoft equals boring and corporate. Face it, tech reporters: the formula isn’t true anymore.

Owning an Apple laptop used to mean you were cool. It symbolized sleek design and individuality. It made you feel a bit more creative. But now using an Apple just shows that you’re like everyone else, and you don’t like change. Designers, innovators, and creatives should know better. It’s time to switch to a user interface experience that’s designed for the 21st century.

If you believe in good design, if you’re an innovator, if you’re committed to well-designed user experience, you should be using Windows devices.

Also see this blog post “Farewell, Desktop Metaphor”

Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation

Collective Genius is a wonderful new book by a team led by Professor Linda A. Hill of Harvard Business School. Of course, I had to read it, because my own business book is called Group Genius. With such similar titles, it’s not surprising there’s a lot of overlap with my book: we cite a lot of the same research, we choose many of the same companies for our case studies, and we provide very similar advice for leaders. Here are some quotations that resonated with my research:

People apparently prefer to believe in the rugged individualism of discovery, perhaps because they rarely get to see the sausage-making process behind every breakthrough innovation. Three decades of research has clearly revealed that innovation is most often a group effort. [Here, they cite Group Genius and many other books with similar findings.] The process of innovation needs to be collaborative because innovations most often arise from the interplay of ideas that occur during the interactions of people with diverse expertise, experience, or points of view. Flashes of insight may play a role, but most often they simply build on and contribute to the collaborative work of others. (pp. 16-17)

What makes this new book somewhat different from mine is that this book is squarely targeted at managers–it provides very practical advice, in the three-bullet-point style common in executive education programs. For example, the three key things that effective leaders of innovation do are (1) create collaborative organizations, (2) foster discovery-driven learning, (3) support and encourage integrative decision making. Their main foil is the stereotype that the most effective leader is someone who has a strong vision, and then persuades everyone else to execute that vision. Instead, they argue,

Great leaders of innovation see their role not as take-charge direction setters but primarily as creators of a context in which others are willing and able to make innovation happen. (p. 225)

In Group Genius, I call this type of context the “collaborative web” and I provide advice on how to foster their emergence. Since Group Genius was published in 2007, I’ve done countless executive education workshops for corporate leaders, and as I’ve translated the research from my book into workable advice for executives, my own message has become much more focused on leadership practice. This book is very similar in style and spirit to my one-day workshops. Practicing executives will definitely benefit from this book, but if you have the money, you should fly in Linda Hill, or myself, to do a one-day workshop with your leadership team. I suspect this book started out as a one-day workshop and then, in conversation with a literary agent and an acquisition editor, it gradually grew into this book. As a fellow business book author, I’m particularly impressed by their long list of CEO endorsements, by folks like Tim Brown (IDEO), Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn), Terri Kelly (Gore), and Tony Hsieh (Zappos). If you’re looking for a good read for your next business flight, or you can’t afford our speaking fees, I definitely recommend this book.