Theater, Jazz, and Business Success

Did you know that Lever Brothers, the consumer products powerhouse, had teams of actors working with employees and managers at all levels? After a series of interviews, the acting company put on a 40-minute performance in front of hundreds of employees, illustrating behavior–both good and bad–within the company. The project was called Catalyst.

Would you believe that dance instruction could help engineers do a better job? Since 1997, the CONNECT program at the Cooper Union Engineering School has drawn on theater techniques and movement, to help teach engineers how to better understand and communicate with their clients. Engineers who had been through this program received substantially higher ratings from job recruiters.

Did you know that Lucent’s world headquarters has brought in a five-man jazz ensemble, to demonstrate to managers how musicians work collaboratively under demanding constraints?

What all of these projects have in common is their connections to a group based in New York City called “Creativity Connection.” Their mission statement: “Powering corporate performance through arts-based learning.” Executive Director Harvey Seifter was director of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra for many years–an orchestra that I talked about in my book Group Genius, because they rehearse and perform without a conductor, allowing creativity to emerge from the group’s interactions.

The Lever Brothers, Lucent, and Cooper Union examples all come from a special issue of the Journal of Business Strategy from 2005. Businesses are experiencing great success by sending their staff to special workshops focused on theater, jazz, and even dance.

The reason this works is that these arts are ensemble arts, and these performers are experts at using collaboration to generate creativity. I wouldn’t try this myself–it takes skilled and experienced artists and arts teachers. But I know of an increasing number of artists who are learning the language of business, and can translate their collaborative strengths to organizational contexts.

Kudos to Henry Seifter and Creativity Connection for doing this good work.

The Lone Genius Loses to the Team

What’s your visual image of a brilliant scientist? A nerdy man in a lab coat, working late in some basement laboratory with beakers and test tubes? Someone typing at a computer in their office? Well, clear your mind of that image, because science today is all about collaboration and teamwork. This is the message of a truly impressive study published in SCIENCE magazine 18 May 2007. Three professors at Northwestern University, Stefan Wuchty, Benjamin F. Jones, and Brian Uzzi, analyzed huge databases–of 19.9 million scientific papers over 50 years, and 2.1 million patents–and found that collaboration is rapidly becoming the norm in science and in invention.

They focused on a few key numbers. First, the databases allowed them to determine which papers, and which patents, had one author, two authors, or more. Two or more authors means that the creation was collaboratively generated. In science, the average team size (number of co-authors) doubled over 45 years–from 1.9 to 3.5 authors per paper. Of course, science has become a lot more complex, and requires a lot more funding, and that might account for the larger team size. But the databases also had data about the social sciences and the arts and humanities; social science research hasn’t increased in scale and cost the same way particle physics and medicine have. And surprisingly, even in the social sciences, collaboration has become a lot more important. In 1955, only 17.5% of social science papers had two or more authors; in 2000, 51.5% of those papers did. And although papers in the arts and humanities still are mostly sole authored (over 90%), the trend over the last 50 years has also been toward more collaboration.

But what about quality and creativity? Can we find out if the collaboratively generated papers are any better? Fortunately, the databases allowed the researchers to determine the impact and influence of each paper, and of each patent, because those databases keep track of how many times the paper or patent was cited by a later publication. More citations means a more influential paper; and more citations have been shown to correlate with research quality. And guess what: over the 50 year period studied, teams generated more highly cited work in every research area, and in every time period. The implication is that teams generate better scientific research than solitary individuals.

One final interesting finding is that the creative advantage for teams has increased over the last 50 years. Although teams generated more highly cited work back in 1955, by 2000 the advantage of teams over sole individuals had become even greater. In 1955, team-authored papers received 1.7 times as many citations as sole authored papers; in 2000, they received 2.1 times as many.

In a later issue of SCIENCE magazine (14 September 2007) several letters challenging this research were published; the authors convincingly responded, by providing additional data. There’s no question that teams do better science than solitary individuals, and that the trend is working in teams’ favor.

It’s Obvious (KSR v. Teleflex)

How do you translate a new idea into a profitable innovation? One of the first steps is to get a patent, to make sure that no one else can steal your idea. To receive a patent, you have to show that your idea meets three criteria: it has to be novel; it has to be useful; and it has to be not obvious. It turns out that this notion of “nonobviousness” is very hard to define, and this is a pressing issue among patent lawyers today.

Yesterday and today, I’m a participant in a conference at Lewis and Clark Law School, in Portland, Oregon, where scholars from different backgrounds are trying to work out this complicated notion of nonobviousness. I’m one of 16 scholars; three of us are psychologists who study creativity, and the others are lawyers, economists, and R&D managers at high tech companies (including IBM and Microsoft).

The issue is timely, because in April, 2007, the Supreme Court decided a case about nonobviousness–the first case they’ve taken on this topic since 1966. A company named Teleflex had received a patent for combining two existing patents. The first prior patent was an adjustable gas pedal, so that drivers with short legs could move the pedal forward. The second patent was for an electronic sensor that could detect how far down the driver had pushed the pedal; the sensor would send an electronic message to the carburator, thus getting rid of the wire cable that used to do the job. Teleflex had been granted a patent for an adjustable pedal with an electronic sensor; they had sued another company, KSR, who had later come up with the same combination and was selling the product. KSR argued that the combination was obvious, and therefore that the Teleflex patent should be invalidated.

Every major player in the U.S. economy took sides in the case, because the potential was that the Supreme Court could radically raise the standard for receiving a patent, making life harder for inventors, university technology transfer offices, and small high-tech companies. Larger companies (Microsoft, Cisco), generic drug manufacturers, and open source software advocates hoped that Teleflex’s patent would be overturned, and hoped that the Court would specify a harder-to-meet standard of nonobviousness.

The unanimous, 9-0 decision overturned the patent, on the grounds that the combination was obvious. And this was a hugely important decision, because the Court rejected the standards that the Patent and Trademark Office, and the lower courts, had been using to determine obviousness.

The Court’s decision is complex, and leaves a lot of issues unresolved. But overall, I think the Court made the right decision, because I believe this new decision allows collaborative webs to innovate more smoothly (in the way that I describe in my book, Group Genius). What are your thoughts?