Second Anniversary: Two Years of Creativity Blogs

Just over two years ago today, I started this blog.  It seems like yesterday!  And now, here we are with 78 posts, 258 comments, and upwards of 3,000 hits each month.

I’ve enjoyed it and plan to keep going strong! My goal remains the same as two years ago: to bring to your attention new research and ideas that you are unlikely to find elsewhere, and always with a solid grounding in scientific research on creativity and innovation.

I’m always receptive to suggestions…what’s missing?  What would you like to see more of?

Images of the Brain, Improvising

I’ve just returned from speaking at a fascinating conference hosted by the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts (Sica).  This was the fourth annual “Music and the Brain” conference held at Stanford, and this year the theme of the conference was “Spontaneity and Improvisation.”  I gave the closing talk on Saturday afternoon, emphasing the shared connections between group interaction in jazz and in improvisational theater. Jonathan Berger, a composer and a professor of music at Stanford, and one of the two co-directors of Sica, brought together an interdisciplinary group of brain scientists on the one hand, and music and improvisation experts on the other.

The high point, for me, was the talk by Aaron Lee Berkowitz of Harvard, reporting on three studies. The first was his study of instruction manuals, most of them from around 200 years ago, teaching pianists how to improvise.  At that time, improvisational skill was expected of all pianists; performers were expected to be able to improvise a variety of portions of otherwise-scored pieces, such as the “cadenza”. The second was his study of Harvard professor Robert Levin, a well-known musicologist who is an expert on Mozart, and also is an excellent piano improviser in the classical style of Mozart and Beethoven.  (This is the topic of Berkowitz’s doctoral dissertation in ethnomusicology.)

The third was a brain imaging study that Berkowitz did with Danial Ansari, a professor at the University of Western Ontario.*  They compared the brains of trained pianists improvising a five-note melody on a simple five-note keyboard, with the brains of people playing a simple and fixed five-note sequence (either just pressing the same key five times, or playing the five from bottom to top).  They were asked to improvise in two different ways: first, to improvise a melody but with a fixed rhythm; second, to improvise both the melody and the rhythm.  The idea was to isolate those regions of the brain that are active only when improvising, but not when performing a predetermined pattern.

They found that improvisation, compared to patterned performance, resulted in increased activity in three areas of the brain: the dorsal premotor cortex (dPMC), the anterior cingulate (ACC), and the inferior frontal gyrus/ventral premotor cortex (IFG/vPMC).

In an interview, Berkowitz explained it this way: “The dPMC takes information about where the body is in space, makes a motor plan, and sends it to the motor cortex to execute the plan. The fact [that] it’s involved in improvisation is not surprising, since it is a motor activity. The ACC is a part of the brain that appears to be involved in conflict monitoring — when you’re trying to sort out two conflicting possibilities, like when you to read the word BLUE when it’s printed in the color red. It’s involved with decision making, which also makes sense — improvisation is decision making, deciding what to play and how to play it.” The IFG/vPMC region “is known to be involved when people speak and understand language. It’s also active when people hear and understand music. What we’ve shown is that it’s involved when people create music.”

This is fascinating research, and most of us find these brain imaging studies fairly compelling: it seems like a look deep into the heart of how we create.  But in my own closing talk, I pointed out the limitations of this methodology. I described the collaborative and group nature of ensemble improvisation, and gave several examples of how a performance emerges, unpredictably, from many small creative decisions made, from moment to moment, by each individual in the group.  Brain imaging does a great job of helping us to understand those individual creative decisions; but the full explanation of group improvisation also requires a focus on the interactions among the performers, and how these weave together to generate a collective and shared performance.  Ultimately, the complete explanation of group creativity will have to be interdisciplinary, bringing together brain science, musicology, performance studies, and interaction analysis.  I applaud Sica director Jonathan Berger for organizing a conference that furthered this goal!

*“Generation of Novel Motor Sequences: The Neural Correlates of Musical Improvisation,” NeuroImage.

2009 Most Innovative Companies

Business Week has just published their annual ranking of the most innovative companies (based on a survey of top executives by the Boston Consulting Group).  They are:

1. Apple

2. Google

3. Toyota

4. Microsoft

5. Nintendo

6. IBM

7. Hewlett-Packard

8. Research in Motion

9. Nokia

10. Wal-Mart Stores


12. Proctor & Gamble

13. Tata

14. Sony

15. Reliance Industries

16. Samsung Electronics

17. General Electric

18. Volkswagen

19. McDonald’s

20. BMW

21. Walt Disney

22. Honda Motor

23. AT&T

24. Coca-Cola

25. Vodafone

Reality Show Innovation

Here’s an interesting tidbit from Business Week magazine:  Last year, Best Buy selected four groups of salespeople, all in their early 30s, and had them live together for 10 weeks in an LA apartment.  Think “Real World” meets creative collaboration.  One successful idea that emerged from this hothouse is the “Best Buy Studio”, which provides web design services for small businesses.  The person who had the initial idea said “we talked about business models while making spaghetti.”

This is a rather extreme version of what I call an “innovation lab” in my book GROUP GENIUS.  Innovative companies have been finding success with this technique for at least a decade: relocate a cross-functional group of ten to fifteen people to a new location for anywhere from two weeks to three months; release them from all day-to-day responsibilities; and charge them with coming up with great new ideas.

Whirlpool has a similar effort under way called “Real Whirled”. They send 8 sales reps to a house in Benton Harbor, Michigan for seven weeks.

The manager who ran Best Buy’s “real world” idea incubator, John Wolpert, had previously done it at IBM–in their “Extreme Blue” incubator in Austin, Texas.  If you’re interested, he charges $75,000 for each ten-week session (that includes room and board).

The Most Innovative Countries

The top ten innovation friendly companies, according to a recent Boston Consulting Group report:


South Korea




Hong Kong


United States



This according to a recent study by Boston Consulting Group and the National Association of Manufacturers.  The study ranked 110 countries on a variety of factors including tax policies, education systems, infrastructure, and number of patents issued.

Of course, the devil is in the details. One of the variables is “R&D tax credit” (which I agree with); another is “Taxation level” (which I’m more skeptical about…do lower taxes result in more innovation? The answer depends on your political leanings).  And some of the factors are not defined, like “Trade policy” (which trade policies do they count as “innovation favorable”?) “IP policy” (ditto) and “Immigration policy” (ditto).  But they have captured a broad range of factors, from “Workforce quality” to “Infrastructure quality.”

Based on interviews with 1,000 executives, they came up with a list of the top strategies for generating innovation.  Two of them are collaborative initiatives that I advocate in my book GROUP GENIUS: (1) Use outside sources of ideas, and (2) partner with suppliers for new ideas.  These executives said that the single most critical factor was finding a skilled, educated work force. Many of the executives were critical of today’s schools.  The number one recommendation of the report was “Strengthen the work force” by improving education.  Regardless of the details, we can all agree on that.

Companies Increase Innovation Spending

If innovation were a short-lived business fad, then it wouldn’t survive the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.  So how are companies responding to reduced sales and tighter budgets?  They’re cutting jobs and wages, but they’re still spending on innovation–according to the just-published “Innovation Climate Survey” by InnovationTools, and also according to a Wall Street Journal cover story from this past Monday (April 6, 2009).

The Innovation Climate Survey is based on interviews with 352 innovation practitioners; the first question was, “How has the climate for innovation changed in your organization since the economic downturn started?” Check out these responses:

Got significantly worse          8%

Got slightly worse          17.9%

No change           26.7%

Improved slightly              27.0%

Improved significantly            20.5%

That means that almost half of respondents reported that the climate for innovation had improved!

If history is any guide, then they’re doing the right thing.  The WSJ article points out that companies have “learned from past downturns that they must invest through tough times if they hope to compete when the economy improves.”  Successful innovations that were hatched during the Great Depression include Kraft macaroni and cheese and Kraft Miracle Whip; and don’t forget that the iPod was released in 2001, shortly after 9/11.  The WSJ reports that big U.S. companies spent almost as much on R&D in 4Q2008 as in 4Q2007, even though their revenue fell 7.7%. Microsoft spent 21% more in 4Q2008 although their revenue was flat.  3M has laid off 4700 workers in the last 15 months and will cut capital expenditures by 30% this year, but says its R&D spending will stay flat or even increase a bit.

The Innovation Climate Survey also asked practitioners what innovation strategies they were using:

Looking for creative ways to improve or extend your existing products (50.9%)

Looking for opportunities to improve collaboration (47.2%)

Increasing focus on changing customer needs (39.8%)

Focusing on service innovation (38.1%)

Focusing on process innovation (36.4%)

My research shows the critical role that collaboration plays in innovation (see my book GROUP GENIUS) so I’m excited to see that almost half of respondents are looking to collaboration as their innovation strategy. Innovation is the path to organic top-line growth, and the downturn presents opportunities for those companies that innovate successfully.  These recent survey results bode well for the future of U.S. companies.

(I also highly recommend the report “Innovation Strategies for the Global Recession” with quotations from top innovation researchers, and links to key blog posts and web sites.)

Alden B. Dow Creativity Center

I’ve just returned from giving a keynote talk at Northwood University in Midland, Michigan, hosted by the Alden B. Dow Creativity Center.  Alden B. Dow was one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s top architect students, and he had a long successful practice.  (If Midland sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because Dow Chemical is located there.)  The Dow family donated the land that the university is on, and A. B. Dow designed most of the buildings on the Northwood campus, including the NADA center where the conference took place.

Northwood is a business school, founded about 50 years ago, that has always emphasized the important role that creativity and the arts play in business success.  So it’s natural that this year’s conference theme is “Creativity: The Business Toolbox Essential.”

One of the other speakers was the Detroit-based designer Dominic Pangborn, famous primarily for his men’s ties. Of course I had to buy one, at the Northwood University art gallery and store…the tie design called “irresistable.”

Midland is a special place, but a bit hard to get to…you fly into the Saginaw/Bay City airport, a bit north of Flint, Michigan.  When Michigan eventually rises out of its current economic slump, it will no doubt be because of creativity and innovation, fostered by institutions like Northwood.