Extending the creative lifespan

In each creative field, whether art, science, or invention, the creator’s productivity goes through a characteristic trajectory: it builds up, reaches a peak age of creative productivity, and then tends to drop off over the rest of the lifespan.  The curve looks different in different fields; for example, in math and physics, productivity shoots up early in life, for a peak age of creativity around 30.  Physicists joke that “if you haven’t done your Nobel-prize work by the time you’re thirty, it’s not going to happen.”  But in other fields the peak age is substantially older; in the arts and the humanities, it’s usually in the fifties.  And good news for those of us who are past the peak age: the drop-off can be very slight (and tends to be slighter as the peak age gets higher).  Exceptional creators continue to generate surprising, important ideas far into their 70s, 80s, and beyond.

When it comes to business invention, companies want to increase the number of years of maximum creativity.  A recent study by Kellogg professor Benjamin Jones* found that the age of peak invention has increased over the last 100 years, as technology becomes more complex and it takes more years to master the larger body of knowledge.  Prior to 1935, the peak was age 36.5; after 1965, the peak age was 40.  The onset of the peak productive years moved up, as well; and so did the age where innovation dropped off.  Before 1935, the drop off was 51; after 1965, it was at 55.

If a company can increase the number of peak creative years, that translates directly into top-line growth.  There are two ways: reduce the length of time it takes to become maximally creative early in a career, or extend the number of years at the older end of the career.  A Wall Street Journal article** reports that Texas Instruments is trying the first: assigning a mentor to each new college grad for intensive training that can get them up to speed in three years instead of five.  Sun Microsystems does the same.  And the possibility is that the pairing could actually increase the productivity of the older workers, as well.

Most innovative companies haven’t thought very hard about how to extend the creative lifespan at the older end.  Continuing education (credits for school tuition) and professional development is necessary, but not sufficient.  Eventually, every Steve Jobs (Apple) and Sergey Brin (Google), and everyone that started their companies with them, will get older.  If we don’t want to be replaced by younger, more creative upstarts, all of us need to stay creative as long as possible.  Organizations need to come up with ways to help us further that goal.  And because many societies are aging (including the U.S. and just about every OECD country), it’s critical for the wealth of nations that we figure this out.  Any ideas?

*“Age and Great Invention” Review of Economics and Statistics, forthcoming

**WSJ, Monday August 18, 2008, p. B5

Apple iPhone

This week my Palm Treo 650 died and I replaced it with an Apple iPhone. These first few days, I have to say I’m very impressed. It far surpasses the Treo 650 (which cost $499 compared to the iPhone’s $199).

Also, by coincidence, this week I read a 2007 Fast Company article about Apple titled “If he’s so smart…Steve Jobs, Apple, and the limits of innovation”. The gist of the article is that Apple is perhaps a bit TOO focused on innovation. No doubt, their products lead the way (Mac, Newton, iPod, iPhone) but they have tended to lose dominance in a market, soon after other companies enter it.  According to the article, the other companies are better at executing, better at quality control, better at reducing costs and making money.

Even if that’s true, I wouldn’t recommend to Apple to be less innovative, but rather to enhance their execution and management capabilities.  But this raises a perennial management question: is innovation somehow incompatible with effective execution?  For example, the quality control method, Six Sigma, is widely believed to be incompatible with innovation.

What concerns me about Apple is their strategy of controlling the complete product, the complete user experience.  Historically, companies that tried to retain such tight control have always lost out in the marketplace, to other companies that are more open to partnerships and distributed innovation.  In my book GROUP GENIUS, I describe how distributed “collaborative webs” are always more successful than single companies, and I give several examples of how the more closed, controlling company lost out–in spite of starting with a better technology or bigger market share.  I didn’t use this example in the book, but that’s how Wintel beat Apple over the last 20 years.

The Application Store on my new iPhone 3G is very exciting, exactly what Apple needs to do: to open up the iPhone to a bigger collaborative web of innovators and developers.  This will be the real story over the next year.

Your Brain on Jazz

Two researchers at the National Institutes of Health, Charles Limb and Allen Braun, asked six jazz pianists to improvise at the keyboard, while their heads were inside a brain scanner known as a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.  The brain scanner is immense–it fills up an entire room–and to get your brain scanned, you have to be lying down so that the immense donut shaped scanning ring can be moved into place around your head.  So the researchers designed a special keyboard that could be propped up in the pianist’s lap.

Then they had each of the six pianists play four different exercises, two that were not improvised and two that were.  The first exercise was a simple C major scale (not improvised); in the second exercise, they were asked to improvise on the C major scale (using only quarter notes and in time with a metronome); in the third exercise, they played a blues melody that they had all memorized in advance (not improvised); and for the fourth, they were asked to improvise their own tune.

To figure out which areas of the brain are unique to improvisation, you’d want to see which brain areas were active only for the second and fourth exercises.  So the researchers “subtracted” the images while the brain was not improvising, from the brain images during improvisation–leaving only the areas that were different during improvisation.  In both of the improvised activities, there was a particular region that slowed down during improvisation: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.  This area is associated with planned actions and self-censoring.  The researchers hypothesized that lower activity in this area should be associated with lower inhibitions.

And, there was another brain region that showed increased activity: the medial prefrontal cortex, an area associated with self-expression.

What’s perhaps most important about this research is that these findings aren’t unique to jazz pianists.  The researchers point out that the same brain patterns should be found in any improvised behavior, including everyday activities like telling a story for the first time, or improvising your way through the neighborhoods to get around a traffic jam.  The key is a combination of reduced inhibition and heightened self-expression.

Feb. 27 issue of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) One.