Google’s Study of Effective Managers

Starting in 2008, Google’s statisticians began “Project Oxygen”.* The plan was to statistically analyze years of performance reviews to identify which behaviors were associated with the best performing managers. The methodology also allowed them to rank-order the behaviors. Here they are, from top to bottom:

  1. Be a good coach. Provide specific, constructive feedback.
  2. Empower your team and don’t micromanage.
  3. Express interest in team member success and personal well being.
  4. Be productive and results-oriented.
  5. Be a good communicator and listener.
  6. Help your employees with career development.
  7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team.
  8. Have key technical skills and use them to help your team.

Of course, this was done only with Google managers and there is no evidence that the findings transfer to other organizations. And yet, none of this is surprising. You’d learn pretty much the same things in any MBA program’s course on leadership. Still, it’s interesting that even in a super-creative, high-technology company, the same principles of leadership seem to hold true.

*Adam Bryant, “The quest to build a better boss”, New York Times, March 13 2011, pp. BU1, BU7.

Cirque du Soleil

The process of choreography is surprisingly collaborative and improvisational, and Cirque du Soleil is the perfect example, as demonstrated by a recent interview with Circus Choreographer Debra Brown in the Wall Street Journal*:

When she’s creating a new act, Ms. Brown begins by leading the acrobats in improvisation sessions to see what they can do. Often, new tricks emerge. Routines can come together in as little as a week, or take as long as a month or two to finalize. Shows often evolve after they hit the stage. After a show debuts, the creative team reconvenes to edit numbers and adjust the tricks and choreography. “Improvisation is part of our blood,” Ms. Brown said.

My own research has demonstrated the important element of improvisation in every successful creative collaboration.

Uncertainty plays a big role in Ms. Brown’s creative process. Some of the most impressive stunts in a Cirque show come from unscripted moments in rehearsal.

In a forthcoming book that I edited, Structure and improvisation in creative teaching, my colleague Janice Fournier analyzes interviews she did with professional choreographers, and they all report a similarly collaborative and improvisational process. Dr. Fournier uses their example to draw conclusions about how teachers can teach more effectively, if they build collaborative improvisation into the classroom.

*Alexander Alter, “Cirque du Soleil’s Stunt Woman in Chief,” Wall Street Journal, March 12-13 2011, p. C11.

U.S. Senate Debates Patent Reform

I probably could have thought up a more exciting title for this blog post! It’s hard to make patent reform sound exciting (apologies to my law colleagues who study intellectual property!). But getting it right is absolutely critical to a country’s innovation.

This past Monday (February 28, 2011) the U.S. Senate began debate on a patent reform bill that would change the patent system from the current “first to invent” system to a “first to file” system. First to file is the way just about every other country does it; what it means is that whoever files the patent first gets the rights. In contrast, First to invent means that filing for the patent first doesn’t guarantee that you’re the owner; someone can challenge your patent by claiming that they actually had the idea first. Then, in a long (and expensive) court trial, that person has to present documentation that proves they had the idea before anybody else.

The basic issues seem to be:

1. First to file is a lot clearer and simpler. No more long legal battles where the court has to pore over lab notebooks and listen to technical arguments about whether this or that sketch is “really” the idea represented in the patent being challenged. Patent disputes would largely disappear from the courts.

2. First to file seems to favor big corporations, who can afford to have patent lawyers on staff who can file patents almost immediately after their researchers come up with something new. The independent inventors can’t file as quickly because they have to find a patent lawyer, bring them up to speed on their technology, etc. And it costs $4,000 to file a patent (although there is a $110 “provisional application” that would still establish priority).

The bill has already been unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and appears to have bipartisan support in both houses of Congress.

So which system will foster greater innovation? In recent decades, the U.S. has been the most innovative country, so defenders of the current system can argue “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But many other countries are also innovative, even with a first to file system. So much of U.S. innovation comes from small startup companies, that I have to admit I’m nervous about shifting to a system that could disadvantage those small startups vis-a-vis the big corporations. The key, for me, is to make sure a first to file system doesn’t end up favoring big corporations at the expense of small entrepreneurial startups.

Two New Books About Scientific Collaboration

Internet evangelists like to talk about how the Internet has enabled a new era of mass collaboration. And I agree with them. However, I disagree that collaboration is a new thing; collaboration is a basic human organizational form, and creativity and innovation have always resulted from collaboration. In my book Group Genius, I tell stories from the 19th and early 20th century of collaborations–many of them distributed, open systems–that resulted in inventions as different as the telegraph and the board game Monopoly.

In the Wall Street Journal this weekend, Alan Hirshfeld reviewed two new books about collaboration through the centuries, and how groups and organizations fostered scientific and scholarly advances. The first book, The Clockwork Universe, describes the history of “scholarly societies” throughout Europe, extending back to Rome’s Accademia dei Lincei in the 1600s. But most of the book is about London’s Royal Society, founded in 1660. Isaac Newton became the group’s president in the early 1700s. As always, the real history of science shows that the “solitary genius” image is a complete myth.

The second book, The Philosophical Breakfast Club, is about the 18th century collaboration between four Cambridge University students: the mathematician Charles Babbage, who designed the world’s first programmable computer; the astronomer John Herschel, who would go on to make contributions to the new technology of photography; William Whewell, who coined the term “scientist” in 1833; and the political economist Richard Jones, who worked to ameliorate poverty. They met for breakfast every Sunday. They corresponded constantly. They debated everything. They convinced the Royal Society to base membership solely on scientific merit (it had been an avocation of the moneyed class) in 1847. And even though they advocated for increased specialization, their creativity was enhanced by the diverse backgrounds of the group.

In today’s world, creativity is always collaborative. And it’s not just because we all connect to the Internet; it’s because human creativity has always been deeply collaborative, always emerging from social networks and groups.