Gray’s Anatomy

I’m not talking about the ABC show, I’m talking about the celebrating medical textbook…one of the most famous medical books of all time.  Henry Gray’s name is on the cover.  But the reason the book was so influential was because it was the result of a powerful collaboration: between Henry Gray, and a second surgeon, Henry Vandyke Carter.  In fact, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal (a review of the new book The Making of Mr. Gray’s Anatomy) suggests that Carter should get perhaps even more of the credit–because Carter was the illustrator, and a big part of the reason that the book was so important was due to its illustrations.

Gray and Carter were surgical colleagues at St. George’s Hospital in London. Gray initiated the collaboration because he knew that Carter was a talented illustrator (Carter’s family wasn’t wealthy, and Carter earned extra money by selling illustrations).  Gray, ten years senior and with a bit more money, paid Carter a monthly fee for each of the 15 months that he worked on the drawings.  They ended up working together 20 months–dissecting together, then with Gray writing and Carter illustrating.

An influential creative work that we attribute to a solitary genius, once again turns out to be the result of collaboration!

Architects of Group Genius

I’ve recently been in touch with an Italian architecture firm called “Architects of Group Genius”…I was intrigued by their name, because my book’s title is Group Genius.  If you visit their web site, you’ll see that they design spaces to foster maximum collaboration and innovation.  As they say, “Innovation, Change, Learning and Collaboration, and the blurred boundaries between them, underlie all the work we do.”

My contact there is Maurizio Travaglini, and today I received in the mail a customized Moleskine notebook with KRE-AT09 embossed on the front.  The notebook remains mostly empty but has a few quotations printed inside, including this one from my book:

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. When we collaborate, creativity unfolds across people; the sparks fly faster, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Keep up the good work, Architectz, and I wish you the best in 2009!

Sleep On It

A fascinating study in Nature magazine* shows that sleep can increase the chance you’ll have a creative insight.

Many of us have had the experience of waking up with a great idea, or having an insight while in the shower right after waking up.  And many famous creators have said that they got their ideas while dreaming or sleeping.  But there hasn’t been any scientific, experimental evidence of the power of sleep–until now.

A team of German researchers posed the “Number Reduction Task” (NRT) to 66 people.  In the NRT, you’re given a list of 8 digits, and the list contains only the digits 1, 4, and 9. You’re also given the first digit of the new list of 8 digits that you’ll generate below the first:

1  1  4  4  9  4  9  4


Your task is to find the eighth digit.  To do this, you start by generating another 7 digits, underneath the first list, by applying the following rules from left to right:

To generate the next digit, compare the new digit to the left with the old digit above and to the right.  Apply one of these two rules: if those two digits are the same, then write down that same digit; if they are different, then write down the third digit (that’s different from both of them).  You’d be comparing 1 with 1, so you’d get 1 again:

1  1  4  4  9  4  9  4

1   1

But the third time, you’re comparing 1 with 4 so the third new digit is 9.  To get the fourth new digit, you’d be comparing 9 with 4, so the fifth new digit is 1, etc.  But remember: your only assignment is to find the 8th and final new digit.  (Go ahead, try it!)  This took their subjects about 9 seconds each time.

All 66 subjects worked through 90 of the above NRTs.  Then one group of 22 people got 8 hours of sleep, and a second group of 22 people stayed awake overnight.  A third group of 22 did the first 90 in the morning and then stayed awake during the day.  Then all 66 worked through 300 NRTs.

What the subjects didn’t know is that all of these number strings were created in such a way that the last three new digits mirrored the previous three.  (As you’ll see if you completed the above NRT.)  So once you discover that rule, you know that the third digit in the list–the second one that you write–is going to also be the final digit.  Once subjects discovered this rule, the time it took them to solve an NRT dropped from 9 seconds to less than 3 seconds.

So: did sleep help?  Absolutely!  Of the 44 people that stayed awake for 8 hours (overnight or during the day) 22.7 percent of them discovered the rule during the retesting.  But of the 22 that slept, 59.1 percent discovered the rule–more than twice as many!  (Five people discovered the rule during the first batch of testing and they were dropped from the study.)

Of course, simple number games like this are a far cry from the kinds of innovations that change the world and improve your life.  But this study confirms what many of us have experienced: If you’re working late, stumped by a tough problem, stop working and go to bed.

*Ullrich Wagner, Steffen Gais, Hilde Haider, Rolf Verleger, and Jan Born (2004).  Sleep inspires insight. Nature Vol. 427 January 2004 pp. 352-355.

Managing Knowledge for Innovation

Innovation is often cited as a primary reason for organizations to get involved with knowledge management (KM)–a term used to refer to any systematic efforts to capture and disseminate all of the knowledge that people and groups possess in an organization. After more than a decade of knowledge management (KM) research, we are still not certain how knowledge is created and transformed into business value. Managers This is a problem, because managers want to know how KM contributes to creativity and innovation.

Over the past few years, our understanding of KM has been fundamentally transformed. The inflows and outflows of knowledge have expanded to accelerate internal innovation and expand the markets for external use of innovation. Alternative approaches to organizing for innovation– in an open environment with multiple participants (i.e., customers, suppliers, partner firms, and developers) in communities or markets, seem to hold great potential to distribute organizational knowledge. These new methods and organizational structures engage a broader base of outside knowledge holders.  Yet, they raise important new issues about how knowledge is created and applied to derive business value, generate new ideas, and develop new products and solutions.

With my colleagues Benbya Hind and Lynne Cooper, we are organizing a minitrack on knowledge management for Creativity and Innovation at the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.  The conference will be held in Kauai, and we are looking for papers on a variety of emerging topics on Creativity and Innovation (including knowledge co-creation in communities, markets and open platforms, and ideas lifecycle management).

You can find more details about potential topics and how to submit proposals on the following website:

The deadline for full manuscripts submissions is June 15th, 2009.

Idea Sharing in Nonprofits

The intellectual property issues just keep coming up! (See my previous posts on IP issues.)  Maybe I should go back to law school…

This morning, I was interviewed by a team of researchers at Blekinge Institute of Technology in Sweden; they are studying collaborative innovation networks and how they can contribute to transformational change towards a sustainable society.  Then, I read an article in the New York Times, an interview with Lawrence Lessig (famous advocate of creative commons licensing and other radical changes to copyright and patent).

My discussion over Skype to Sweden was focused on nonprofit organizations (in the rest of the world, they’re called non-governmental organizations or NGOs).  Anyone who works with nonprofit organizations has noted their seeming inability to collaborate, their need to keep control over their sphere of activity.  And accompanying this is a frustrating tendency to reinvent the wheel–for multiple nonprofits to be operating in the same space, with the same mission, when their target audience could be much better served if they joined forces.  I thought that perhaps this was a uniquely American problem, so I asked if they thought Swedish nonprofits collaborated well–their response was to laugh.  In fact, they were the ones who brought up the phrase “reinvent the wheel.”  So we know at least it’s not limited to the U.S.

So how do we foster collaboration and sharing among nonprofits?  The intellectual property scholars, like Lessig, have argued that the current IP regime blocks collaboration by granting too strong an ownership right to creators.  (I argued this as well, in the final chapter of my book Group Genius.)  The ownership right (patent or copyright) allows the creator to charge whatever he or she wants for the privilege of using it, or blocking its use altogether.  Lessig has argued for mandatory licensing at a government-specified usage fee.

But when it comes to nonprofits, people aren’t motivated by profit.  The incentives are very different, and I don’t have a good understanding of what they are–genuine desire to help the underprivileged…but if that’s the motivation, then why isn’t there more collaboration?  Maybe it’s a big ego, the sincere belief that you know best how to help the underprivileged.  Maybe it’s the “founder mentality” that you see in so many venture-capital startups, where the organization is so closely identified with the founder, and the founder (who remains the executive director) has difficulty delegating or sharing authority.

I don’t think nonprofits patent their business models; I don’t think they should!  I’m thinking of a local St. Louis organization, KidSmart, that provides school supplies to students who can’t afford to buy pencils and notebooks.  There are similar organizations in cities around the country; none of them are paying royalties to the very first such outfit (and that’s a good thing). They borrow ideas from each other all the time.  But what if another nonprofit started up in St. Louis, doing the exact same thing?  Wouldn’t that be odd–why wouldn’t those folks just join on with KidSmart?  That hasn’t happened…but similarly odd things happen all the time (thus the phrase “reinventing the wheel”).

So maybe the “creative commons” is the right way to think about innovation in the nonprofit sector. (I don’t think it’s a good model for for-profit innovation, by the way.) But we need more research on exactly what motivates nonprofit volunteers and workers, and what forms of collaboration and idea exchange will result in the greatest benefit to the greatest number of needy people.