Avoid “Culture Fit” If You Want Innovation

Some companies have started to hire only people who “fit” into their “culture,” according to an article by Rachel Feintzeig in the Wall Street Journal. Innovation research shows that this is a horrible idea.

These companies have applicants do a “culture fit test” before they’re hired. For example, G Adventures has job candidates climb down into a play pit full of brightly colored plastic balls, and then play a “spin the wheel” game where they answer personal questions, in front of three current employees.

  • Salesforce.com has tried using “cultural ambassadors” to evaluate job finalists.
  • Zappos.com gives veto power to senior company veterans. They can reject a potential hire if they decide the candidate doesn’t fit in, even when the candidate is otherwise fully qualified.

The career website Beyond.com found “that human-resources staff, when considering recent college hires, ranked cultural fit above a candidate’s referrals, coursework and grades.” (If you’re not white and male, this probably isn’t a surprise. And you’re probably not excited by the idea of playing a spin the wheel game, with three white guys, in a pit full of balls.)

These practices block innovation. We know from creativity research that the most innovative teams have cognitive diversity. That means that each person has a different set of ideas, practices, and knowledge. This drives innovation, because the most creative ideas combine very different ideas. If everyone in the group has the same cognitive material inside their skull, they won’t make those “distant combinations” that result in breakthrough creativity.

If you want innovation, avoid culture fit!

Can Colleges Be More Innovative? (And if so, why?)

It seems that everyone is calling for colleges to be more innovative. You’ve probably heard something like this: “Colleges are resistant to innovation. How many institutions have remained unchanged for 500 years? Only the Catholic church and the college. A student from 400 years ago would be right at home on today’s campus.” et cetera… This lack of innovation seems strange, because colleges are filled with innovation: research professors generate breakthrough research, engineering professors invent new technologies, and medical professors invent new drugs and surgery procedures.

I just read a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education that reports on a provocative article in the Washington Monthly, an attack on colleges for their lack of innovation. The article also describes a panel at the Washington think tank “New America” with three award-winning college innovators. Here’s a summary of the conversation.

First, most of the lack of innovation isn’t really the college’s fault. If the incentives that colleges work with don’t change, then why should they change? Incentives like public rankings, student demand and application numbers, total tuition revenue.

Second, innovation implies that you have to be the first person to ever do something. But some of the most important changes happen when a college borrows and adapts something that’s already been proven elsewhere. The pressure to innovate often leads university administrators to do something new just because it’s new, when they could get more mileage out of borrowing, adapting, and tweaking (see “incentives”–they aren’t rewarded for borrowing something that already works).

Third, many are calling for innovations in how to provide more flexibility for students. But flexibility can lead to fraud and abuse. Colleges have many legal requirements and constraints that block changes.

Fourth, when institutions change, some students benefit but others suffer. That’s why so many university administrators are cautious–they want to protect and help their students. It’s easier to get fired for doing something new that visibly hurts a student, than it is to get fired for continuing to do the same thing.

Most of what colleges call “innovation” are incremental changes, not breakthrough reinventions of the institution: things like modifying a degree requirements, or adding a new computer technology to the classroom. So, what sort of innovation do we want from colleges? What sort do we think they really need?

Finally, be suspicious when politicians call for innovation in higher education. What they usually mean is, we’re going to cut your budget. And if you complain about it, you’re just not being innovative.

The Zig Zag Process of Musical Creativity: The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”

When most people think of creativity, they think of the solitary lone genius, creating in silence far from the distractions of other people. Musical composition seems to be a great example of solitary creativity: The image of the singer-songwriter, writing songs about her own personal life and relationships. But this kind of musical creativity is rare. Most songs are composed in a highly collaborative process. One example is the Beach Boys song “Good Vibrations,” which was a flower-power love song.

The band spent 7 months in the studio producing the song. A new interview with four members of the group reveals the wandering, zigzagging, collaborative creative process. Here are a few of the steps in the process:

  1. At the age of 14, a dog barked at Brian Wilson’s mom. She said “Sometimes dogs pick up vibrations from people.”
  2. Nine years later, Wilson remembered this statement, and wrote a short chord progression for a song based on what his mom said. No lyrics were written yet.
  3. Combining cello and electro-theremin on the chorus was his brother Carl’s idea.
  4. They had the instrumentals recorded, and they liked what they heard on the tape, but there still weren’t lyrics for the song. At the time, Wilson was writing lyrics together with Tony Asher. When they first sat down, Wilson was calling the song “Good Vibes.” Asher thought “vibes” sounded cheap and trivial, and suggested “vibrations.”
  5. Asher wrote the first verse and chorus, including “good, good, good, good vibrations.”
  6. At the time, it didn’t really come together, and they put the song aside for a while.
  7. Later, Wilson asked musician Mike Love to come up with some lyrics for the same song. He ended up liking Mike’s lyrics better. (Mike was the one who coined the word “excitations.”)
  8. Since they wrote the first draft of the lyrics, the drug culture of hippies and flower power had emerged in the public eye. Mike was finally ready to write the verses. In the spirit of the newly trending flower power, he wrote lyrics including “I love the colorful clothes she wears and the way the sunlight plays upon her hair.”
  9. A few lines later is the line “on the wind that lifts her perfume through the air.” His original draft said “incense” instead of “perfume” but he decided that incense would be “a little much for Middle America.”
  10. Wilson arranged the vocals for these lyrics. In the studio, Wilson dropped the words “we find” from the end of the second verse, so the bass and drums would come through better.
  11. When the band listened to the initial vocal tracks, they realized the song needed some sort of contrast. Mike Love and Brian Wilson came up with a ballad duet inspired by Stephen Foster’s songs, and they added it as a bridge.

Brian Wilson was a very creative individual, but even Wilson worked in a collaborative web, and the songs we know and love came out of a collaborative, emergent, unpredictable, wandering process.

No Meetings on “Thinking Thursday”

I’m a big fan of collaboration. But like everybody else, I spend hours every day in meetings. Too many hours. Hours that I could be sitting in my office, getting work done.

Now, some companies are taking action. Edmunds.com, the web site for car buyers, has a new policy: No meetings allowed on Thursdays. The hope is that in this new solo time, people will come up with creative ideas. I like it! But, as a creativity researcher, I’m nervous about some of the subtle messages being sent.

First of all, the title: “Thinking Thursdays.” It implies that no one is thinking when they’re in a meeting. Which of course is silly; lots of great thoughts emerge from conversations. There’s a lot of collective thinking that can only happen when you bring a variety of people together.

Second, there’s the assumption that people can only be creative when they’re alone. It’s true that the research shows that you need some solitary time. But research also shows that you need frequent conversations and collaborations to achieve your creative potential.

Still, it’s a good policy if your company has too many meetings, if there’s no time to be alone. Maximum creativity comes from a good balance of group time and solo time.

Do you have stories of how your company helps you to carve out space for solitary time?

The Creative Architect Study

In 1949, the psychologist Donald MacKinnon started a research center at UC Berkeley called “The Institute for Personality Assessment and Research (IPAR).” During World War II, Dr. MacKinnon had developed personality and ability tests for the U.S. military. The purpose of the IPAR was to extend this research into civilian life. One of its priorities was to scientifically determine the traits of the creative personality.

Their most important research study was an analysis of creative architects. Forty of the top architects in the U.S. flew to Berkeley and lived together in an old fraternity house for a weekend. Psychologists gave them a battery of tests, and observed them while they had dinner, lunch, and cocktails. The most famous architects agreed to participate, including Louis Kahn, Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, Richard Neutra, and Eero Saarinen. It’s a legendary story among creativity researchers. And now, there’s a new book that tells the story: The Creative Architect (by Pierluigi Serraino, and reviewed in the Wall Street Journal here).

Unfortunately, the study didn’t result in any strong or surprising findings–other than observing that the architects didn’t fit the stereotype of a creative person. The study found no evidence that creative people fit the widespread image of “an eccentric not only in thinking but in appearance, dress, and behavior; a Bohemian, an egghead, a longhair…a true neurotic, withdrawn from society, inept in his relations with others” (MacKinnon, 1962/1978, p. 178). The architects seemed to be pretty normal and successful professionals.

What’s more, they had remarkably ordinary childhoods: When they recalled their childhoods, they described the classic upper-middle-class, educated, American lifestyle: fathers were effective in their demanding careers, mothers were autonomous and often had their own careers, religion was important but not central or doctrinaire, families emphasized the development of a personal code of ethics, parents were not overly judgmental but encouraged the child’s ideas and expressions, and the family moved frequently (paraphrasing from MacKinnon’s book).

I recommend reading the WSJ review, and getting the book!

McKinnon, D. W. (1962/1978). In search of human effectiveness. Buffalo, NY: Creative Education Foundation.

Creativity is not Localized in the Brain

If you’ve read the chapter on brain imaging in my book Explaining Creativity, you’ll know that the technology has limitations. Specifically: There’s no way to use this research to claim that creativity is located in a particular part of the brain. To their credit, the researchers who do this work would never say that. However, the media tend to hear about these cautious and limited findings, and publish articles with titles like “Now we know where creativity is!”

A new article in The Economist describes these limitations:

The technology has its critics. Many worry that dramatic conclusions are being drawn from small samples (the faff involved in fMRI makes large studies hard). Others fret about over-interpreting the tiny changes the technique picks up. A deliberately provocative paper published in 2009, for example, found apparent activity in the brain of a dead salmon.

The Economist article is about a new study that identifies a serious problem with fMRI methodology. The new study’s findings suggest that the statistics programs that interpret the fMRI results are “seriously flawed.” (And there’s a lot of statistics involved; take a look at my chapter for a quick summary.) The researchers used these fMRI algorithms to compare 499 subjects who were lying in the scanner while not thinking about anything in particular. With the standard fMRI statistical software, they divided this subject pool in half in 3 million different ways, and did comparisons each time. There shouldn’t have been any findings at all. But in fact, 70 percent of the 3 million comparisons resulted in false positives. That means, in 70 percent of these comparisons, there was a statistically significant finding of elevated brain activity, in half of the 499 subjects, in some part of the brain.

Because this study was just published, we can’t yet be sure what it really means. But my advice is: Be skeptical if you read an article claiming that creativity is located in a particular brain region. Creativity is a function of the entire brain, working together.

Magic Carpet Ride: How Music Gets Created

Here’s a story of the unpredictable, improvisational process of creativity. It’s the story of how the 1968 hit song “Magic Carpet Ride” was created by the band Steppenwolf.

Maybe the process works this way: A songwriter writes a song, usually alone, and then gathers the band together to perform the song. If that’s what happens, then musical creativity is a solitary act. But that’s not how most songs are created. They emerge from collaboration, with unpredictable twists and turns.

Here’s the creative process behind “Magic Carpet Ride,” according to two of the musicians who played on the recording:

  1. A guitarist named Mars Bonfire (not his birth name!), who was not in the band, visited the studio and was playing a new song he’d written.
  2. At some point, the bass player, Rushton Moreve, starting playing a bouncy riff that he always played on sound checks on the band’s first tour, but which had never been part of any song.
  3. Mars liked the bass line, and started playing some chords with it. Not related to his original song; they were just playing around and having fun.
  4. The recording engineers in the sound booth loved it. They said “Hey, keep doing that. That’s really good.”
  5. Then, the whole band joined in. But all they had was that one-measure bass riff. What else could they add?
  6. Mars improvised some chords and suggested they could be an instrumental interlude. (Later, singer John Kay would write lyrics for this interlude that made it into the final song: “Close your eyes girl/look inside girl/let the sound take you away”)
  7. The lead guitarist, Michael Monarch, loved thick distorted guitar sounds. John asked Michael to do some loud feedback through his amp, and then John improvised matching lines in the high register. They improvised the same few bars twice.
  8. The recording engineers had actually hit the “record” button, even though John and Michael were just playing around. For the final recording, the engineers edited together pieces of the two different takes, to make it sound better.
  9. Everyone loved the track they’d recorded, but they still needed lyrics. John took home a cassette and played it in his home stereo, trying to think of lyrics that worked. He’d just bought a new stereo and it was high-end, the best available. John started singing lyrics about how awesome his stereo sounded: “right between my sound machine/On a cloud of sound” and then the rest of the lyrics were improvised after that.

Anyway…by now you’ve probably stopped reading. But at least, you can see the long and unpredictable creative process. This is how music is created, the music that we hear and love. It doesn’t come from the mind of an inspired, or tortured, songwriter–it emerges from a collaborative process.

  • This story is taken from Marc Myers in the Wall Street Journal, Friday July 15, 2016, page D6.
  • You might also want to read John Seabrook’s book The Song Machine about today’s pop music hits.