Creativity, Imagination + Innovation

Today I was a participant in a fascinating symposium at Teachers College in New York City: the “Creativity, Imagination + Innovation Symposium.” Professors Margaret Crocco and Lori Custadero organized a very creative event, which opened on Thursday evening with a performance by the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe, and ended tonight with a jazz quartet.

Today’s events included a morning seminar where I spoke about creativity and education, and an afternoon talk by Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From (which I endorse because it makes a very similar argument to my 2007 book Group Genius; Johnson even reprises my story about Charles Darwin and the origin of the theory of evolution).

I hope that this is just the beginning of a new initiative at Teachers College (and at Columbia University) to make creativity a more central part of university life.

Roger Ebert Wins the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest

I’ve been blogging about creativity in cartooning for years, ever since New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff contacted me about my book Group Genius. (See this post from October 23, 2009 for example).

In a recent blog post on the New Yorker web site, Bob Mankoff proclaims that film critic Roger Ebert has just won the contest with this cartoon and caption:

Mankoff quotes from my 2009 blog post:

Cartoon contest winners usually generate lots of captions. Studies of creativity have shown that quantity breeds quality—what I call the productivity theory, because high productivity corresponds to high creativity.

This was certainly true with Ebert: According to the New Yorker database, he entered the caption contest 107 times before winning.

MIT Technology Review 50 Most Innovative Companies

The Technology Review March/April issue contains the second annual list of “the world’s most innovative technology companies”. Unlike other rankings, like Business Week and Fast Company, the fifty are not ranked; they’re just grouped into Public Companies and Private Companies. An asterisk indicates that the company is new to the list this year:

Public Companies:

  • A123 Systems
  • Amyris
  • First Solar
  • Goldwind*
  • Siemens*
  • Suntech
  • Nissan
  • Toyota*
  • Apple
  • ARM Holdings*
  • HTC
  • IBM
  • iRobot
  • Akamai
  • Google
  • Netflix*
  • American Superconductor
  • Applied Materials
  • Complete Genomics
  • Geron*
  • Life Technologies*
  • Novartis*
  • Pacific Biosciences
  • Roche*

Private Companies:

  • BrightSource Energy*
  • eSolar
  • Joule Unlimited
  • Silver Spring Networks*
  • Synthetic Genomics
  • 1366 Technologies
  • SpaceX*
  • Calxeda*
  • Lyric Semiconductor*
  • PrimeSense*
  • Square*
  • Cotendo*
  • Crowdcast*
  • Facebook*
  • Groupon*
  • Layar*
  • Twitter
  • Ushahidi
  • Zynga
  • Lattice Power*
  • Novomer
  • Serious Materials
  • Bind Biosciences
  • Cellular Dynamics International*
  • Claros Diagnostics*

Sand Dune Teams

In my 2007 book Group Genius, I showed that the most innovative organizations were improvisational and team-focused. Early in the book, I tell how W. L. Gore developed the Elixir brand of guitar strings, with a team that formed spontaneously and unofficially. In Chapters 8 and 9, I describe many companies that create temporary, cross-disciplinary teams to foster innovation (I call them “innovation labs”).

Now, I’ve just learned that the leading guru of teams research, J. Richard Hackman, believes that these improvisational, emergent, and fluid teams are the wave of the future.* He calls them “sand dune teams” to indicate that they are impermanent. His key points echo my 2007 book:

  1. These teams are best for “fast-changing contexts in which surprise is the rule”.
  2. They often emerge in emergencies (There’s a lot of research showing the role of improvisation in emergency and disaster response; in Group Genius, I begin Chapter 2 by telling a story about the 1980 Naples earthquake).
  3. They do best when they operate in organizational units of 30 people or less, so that “unitwide norms and routines” can be shared.

Hackman argues that we need a lot more research on these teams:

We have not yet identified the minimum conditions needed for sand dune teams. We don’t know what additional features and technologies would help them manage themselves well. Nor do we know whether such teams are feasible when their members are not colocated.

I agree that this is an exciting topic for future research in organizational behavior. I’m not thrilled by the “sand dune team” metaphor, however, because it suggests that the teams form in response to external forces largely outside of their control. My own research suggests, in contrast, that there’s an internal logic to the improvisational and emergent processes whereby such teams form; and, that organizations can take concrete steps to foster the effective formation of such emergent teams.

I look forward to future studies on this topic published by Professor Hackman.

*Hackman, J. R. 2011. Managing work by ever-shifting teams. The HBR Agenda 2011, p. 11.

Polymaths No More?

An article in Intelligent Life (August 2009) bemoans the “endangered species,” the polymath–a person who is successful at many different pursuits. In contrast to the narrow specialists who seem to rule today’s world, polymaths contribute to many different specialties throughout their careers. Past centuries had plenty of polymaths (perhaps Leonardo Da Vinci is the prototype). Take Thomas Young, an English polymath who worked in the late 1700s and early 1800s. He showed light is a wave, not just a particle; he described how the eye focuses at different distances; he contributed to materials science and its understanding of elasticity; he studied the grammar of 400 languages and coined the term “Indo-European”; he even “tinkered around with life insurance” according to the article.

But of course, back in 1800 there was a lot less knowledge overall. One could acquire a working knowledge of a discipline (materials science, optics and the eye, life insurance) just by reading the few books that had been written on the topic. Today all of these fields have had another 200 years of knowledge created. That’s why creativity researchers have observed a “ten year rule”: that it seems to take ten years of working away in one specialized domain before you can make a significant creative contribution. (This rule was first published in the 19th century, when a study of telegraph operators found that the best operators had ten years of experience.) Ten years roughly corresponds to Professor Anders Ericsson’s finding that it takes 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to attain world-class expertise.

And over time, as new knowledge is created and total knowledge accumulates, it should take longer to become an expert. Benjamin Jones (of the Kellogg School of Management) calculated the average age a person was granted a Nobel Prize, and examined how that changed over time. And sure enough: Nobel recipients in 1998 were on average six years older than those granted in 1873.

So is this a problem to worry about, or not? After all, specialization has resulted in marvelous things that no one in 1800 could have dreamed of. The one potential problem is that creativity so often comes by joining concepts from two or more different areas–so if everyone only knows one area, this creative combination might never happen. I can think of at least two possible solutions: (1) create collaborative teams that bring together people with different backgrounds; (2) educate “T-Shaped” people, who are highly specialized in one area (the vertical bar of the “T”) but who also are passingly familiar with lots of other areas (the horizontal bar). And in general, we’ll all be more creative if we choose one area to focus our expertise, but also if we actively seek out familiarity with everything else. I’ll coin an awkward saying:

Cultivate dilletantism.

Collaboration Drives Human Evolution

A recent article in the New York Times* surveys a range of recent studies that compare human beings with lower primates, such as chimpanzees. It turns out that one of the biggest differences is our ability to collaborate and to form social networks. As anthropologist Kim Hill says,

Humans are not special because of their big brains. That’s not the reason we can build rocket ships–no individual can. We have rockets because 10,000 individuals cooperate in producing the information.

One body of research compares mating patterns and kinship in chimpanzee bands and in early human tribes. The evolutionary story is a bit complex (as outlined in Dr. Bernard Chapais’ 2008 book Primeval Kinship), but basically, human beings mate in a pair whereas with chimps, the alpha male dominates all of the females, and the females mate promiscuously with many males, making it unclear who the father is (intentionally, so that none of the males will kill any of the infants). The pair bond of the humans made it much more obvious who your direct relatives were. And this made social relationships with nearby tribes much more complex; with chimps, other tribes are uniformly treated with hostility (because chimps cannot recognize relatives due to high promiscuity). But with human beings, some of the people in the neighboring tribes are your relatives. This ratcheted up the need for social awareness, and led to complex networks of alliances and collaboration.

A second body of research compares human and chimpanzee infants. Professor Michael Tomasello has shown that young children have an ability called “shared intentionality,” the ability to form plans with others to complete a joint task (in his book Why We Cooperate). Children, but not chimpanzees, can point to objects to convey information; and, children can figure out what someone else wants just by watching their eye gaze, which chimps cannot do. And get this: the white portion of the eyes for a human being is three times the size of other primates, which allows us to see where other people are looking. Chimpanzees infer gaze direction by looking at another’s head; but human infants do it by watching eyes.

(Also note: Bernard Chapais’s related article in Science magazine, 11 March 2011, Vol. 331, p. 1276)

*Nicholas Wade, “Supremacy of a social network,” New York Times, Tuesday March 15, 2011, page D4