Harvard Creativity Conference

Today I’m sitting at Harvard Business School, participating in what promises to be a seminal conference about creativity and innovation–with business leaders including Kim Malone Scott (Google) and Scott Cook (Intuit), and top scholars like Howard Gardner (Harvard) and Bob Sutton (Stanford).

The session opened this morning with four top business leaders, who were each asked: “What are the most important unresolved questions about creativity and innovation?” The first to speak was Kim Malone Scott, a senior manager at Google who is director of AdSense online sales and operations. Her question: “Can creativity scale?” Creativity is most active in a small collaborating group: the most innovative companies are small startups. But eventually, as the company grows, collaboration becomes bureaucracy. So how can a company keep benefiting from the power of collaboration, even as it grows? At Google, Kim reported a few ways that Google was trying to solve this problem: (1) permission isn’t required to start something, but you have to tell everybody first; (2) avoid ownership, because that creates silos; most businesses at Google do not have a single top manager. No one is the manager of the Internet search business at Google. (3) Redundant projects, and frequent failure, are absolutely necessary.

Next was Diego Rodriguez, head of the Palo Alto office of the legendary design firm IDEO. His key question was: “How can we move from depending on the lone genius, to tapping the power of collaboration?” As successful examples, he provided Proctor & Gamble’s Innocentive idea marketplace; Mozilla’s open source code base; and Threadless, the web site where you can post t-shirt designs and then vote on your favorite designs. He emphasized that collaboration occurs across boundaries, when you don’t know who’s in charge, and when everyone is intrinsically motivated.

Third, Mark Fishman, head of research at the pharmaceutical company Novartis, asked “Can a company be both efficient and innovative?” Efficiency is critical at a pharmaceutical company, when it can take 10 years and $1 billion to develop a single new product.  One comment of his that stood out for me: “Six Sigma kills innovation.”

Finally, Scott Cook, founder of Intuit (the maker of the Quicken software) asked “Do we even need management anymore?” In his analysis, innovation today almost always results from emergent discovery out in the field. At Google and many other innovative companies, the best ideas emerge from employees or customers, not from managers–who often seem to just get in the way of innovation.

All four of these legendary executives seemed to be reading from the book Group Genius, where the message is that creativity is never about a lone genius, but is rather about collaboration and social networks. However, I’d be surprised (although delighted) if any of them had read my book. What’s really going on here is that the idea of “group genius” is broadly out there, in the culture.  This is my argument in the book: that even though I am the author of Group Genius, my book is just one manifestation of a collective revealing of knowledge about the importance of collaboration.

After this panel, the legendary Howard Gardner spoke on the topic of “Creativity and Responsibility”: can you be both creative and responsible?  Later speakers on Friday included Harvard’s Amy Edmondson (on the role of failure in creativity) and Stanford’s Jim March (on adaptability and creativity).

Kudos to the organizing panel, led by Theresa Amabile.  This is a highly significant event.

2 thoughts on “Harvard Creativity Conference

  1. funny that google claims “no ownership” for products, but sends the director of adSense to the conference.
    as a (past) software engineer I know how hard it is to create real collective code ownership. everybody wants it – really. but it is so difficult to achieve. add a bit of beaurocracy and organizational stuff… I wonder what really stands behind google’s “no ownership” claim.

  2. I agree with you, I would like to know more as well. I queried Kim about exactly that point during one of the coffee breaks. She insisted that it was in fact true, that no single person was solely responsible for any product, in the traditional top-down hierarchical management style. During her talk, she said “no one is in charge of search”…Google’s primary business!

    Based on my interactions with Kim, I don’t think it’s just hot air…but to understand exactly how it works, I think you would have to spend some time at Google.

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