Mel Brooks and Group Flow

What can comedian Mel Brooks teach us about “group flow”?

Group flow is a state of peak performance, when a group is in sync and creative ideas are flowing. I’ve just published an article in a magazine edited at the University of California, Berkeley, called Greater Good. The article summarizes the ten keys to group flow (as originally presented in my 2007 book Group Genius). Visit the full article or take a quick look at the ten here:

1. A compelling, shared goal

2. Close listening

3. Use “yes, and…” to keep it moving forward

4. Complete concentration and full attention

5. A sense of being in control

6. Blending egos

7. Equal participation

8. Familiarity

9. Constant, spontaneous communication

10. The potential for failure


Does Solitude Enhance Creativity? A Critique of Susan Cain’s Attack on Collaboration

I’ve just read a New York Times article by Susan Cain, author of the forthcoming book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It’s the frustrated cry of a true introvert. Cain is clearly tired of everyone touting the benefits of collaboration; some people, herself included, just want to be left alone. And, she argues, those are the people who really come up with all of the great ideas.

There’s a grain of truth to Cain’s claim: Psychologists who study creativity know that it requires both solitude and collaboration. Exceptional creativity involves a lot of hard work, and that often happens in solitude. But Cain misses the big picture: Researchers have found that breakthrough ideas are largely due to exchange and interaction, and that’s because breakthrough ideas always involve combinations of very different ideas. (Matt Ridley famously calls it “ideas having sex.”)

In 2007, my book Group Genius was partly responsible for what Susan Cain calls dismissively “the rise of the new groupthink.” So I feel like I’ve been called out to respond. Yes, solitude plays a role in the creative process, but Cain overstates her case and misrepresents some of the research. Here are five specific examples of misleading or incorrect statements in her article:

1. Cain says that research by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that exceptional creators are more likely to be introverted. Csikszentmihalyi was my graduate advisor, so I know that what his research actually found is that “Creative people tend to be both extroverted and introverted….[they] exhibit both traits simultaneously.” Reviewing all of the studies of creativity and extroversion using the “five-factor” personality model, most studies don’t show any relation between creativity and either introversion or extraversion. A few studies show a small relation, and for those, it’s always a positive relation between creativity and extraversion. (see my book Explaining Creativity for the details.)

2. Cain argues that Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple with Steve Jobs, is a classic introvert and he’s the one who actually invented the Apple personal computer. She grants that Wozniak never would have had the idea if he hadn’t been exchanging ideas with the Homebrew Computer Club, and he knows that Wozniak’s computer never would have been built and sold if it weren’t for his collaboration with Steve Jobs. It’s true that Wozniak had to go home and build the thing alone…but the real creativity came from collaboration.

And the Macintosh computer–which was a much more innovative product, with the graphic user interface that the one we still use today–resulted from Steve Jobs’ networking and idea exchange with Xerox PARC, the lab where the windows-and-mouse technology was first demonstrated. No solitude story there.

3. Cain is critical of the new trend of using collaborative groups in school classrooms. But in the New York Times article, she doesn’t give any reasons to dislike this, and doesn’t cite any research on the topic (maybe she will in the forthcoming book). Collaboration and learning is one of my research topics, so I know that there’s a huge volume of evidence–going back three decades–showing that collaborative interaction enhances learning. Of course, it has to be done in the right way, and no doubt there are teachers who form student groups in ineffective ways, but you can’t base an argument on a few ineffective teachers.

Regarding learning and mastery, Cain cites Anders Ericsson’s expertise research correctly; that research shows it takes 10,000 hours of mostly solitary practice to become an expert. And I too have argued that this is a prerequisite to a creative life. But that’s not where new ideas come from; that’s just the base of knowledge you need before you’re able to play the game, to combine great ideas and to recognize good ideas.

4. Cain argues that the “Coding War Games” study shows that solitary computer programmers perform better than programmers that don’t get any privacy. But I’ve done studies of pair programming–a core technique of the popular approach known as “extreme coding”–and the research convincingly demonstrates that pair programming results in better computer programs.

5. Cain is absolutely right about the research showing that brainstorming groups generate fewer ideas than the same number of solitary people working alone. But there’s an important exception to this research: if the problems are complex, or if they are visual or spatial, then groups usually outperform solo workers. And in most real-world organizations, problems are pretty complex–not the simple word-generation tasks used in brainstorming experiments.

Cain has read a broad range of important research, and she gets some things right. And she’s smart enough to realize that the more defensible position is that you need both solitude and collaboration. But in her desire to elevate the role of solitude, Cain’s article misrepresents the research. And the research has found just the opposite: collaboration is the key to creativity.

There must be a lot of introverts out there, because when I looked at her book on today, it’s one of the top 100 best selling books. Cain’s book will no doubt appeal to those readers who enjoy solitary work, who’ve sat in endless time-wasting meetings, who did a group project in high school with a bunch of slackers…come to think of it, that pretty much describes everyone, including me! But don’t let yourself be misled by your own bad experiences with groups. The science of creativity shows that exceptional, successful creativity depends on groups, networks, and conversation. If you hole up alone at home, I guarantee you will be less creative.

Online “Badges”: Do They Threaten Colleges?

The Chronicle of Higher Education has just published an article (Jan 8, 2012) wondering whether online “badges” pose a challenge to colleges and universities. Here’s the phenomenon:

The spread of a seemingly playful alternative to traditional diplomas, inspired by Boy Scout achievement patches and video-game power-ups, suggests that the standard certification system no longer works in today’s fast-changing job market. Educational upstarts across the Web are adopting systems of “badges” to certify skills and abilities. At the free online-education provider Khan Academy, for instance, students get a “Great Listener” badge for watching 30 minutes of videos from its collection of thousands of short educational clips. With enough of those badges, paired with badges earned for passing standardized tests administered on the site, users can earn the distinction of “Master of Algebra” or other “Challenge Patches.”

This has the potential to be a serious challenge to the traditional university. The reason is that universities serve two functions in modern society: one function is to help students learn. That’s the one we professors spend most of our time thinking about. The other function is to credential young adults as being prepared for the workplace: what I call the certification function. That’s the one a lot of students (and parents) are mostly thinking about. The certification function is not necessarily linked to the learning function. Yes, in a well-functioning university, the certification attests to master of knowledge learned. But how many of you have heard the cynical phrase “You pretend to teach us, and we pretend to learn”?

Employers need information to help them know who they should hire. They could develop tests and systems in their human resources departments, but they don’t need to, because they are getting this information for free–from universities. If it weren’t for universities and their degrees, employers would have to come up with some other way to acquire information about potential hires. They don’t want to design their own evaluation system and manage it from their human resources department; they want to continue getting it for free.

Voila! Enter the badges. Exactly what employers need: A mechanism that serves the certification function, and that doesn’t cost anything. From the perspective of the employer, it’s the same function that universities serve. Of course one can argue about their relative effectiveness at serving that function. At this time in history, I absolutely trust the university degree a lot more than these badges, but things could change quickly. So will universities lose their monopoly over the certification function?

The Chronicle article quotes David Wiley, a professor at Brigham Young University: “We have to question the tyranny of the degree…As soon as big employers everywhere start accepting these new credentials, either singly or in bundles, the gig is up completely.” The potential is that a system of badges could completely reframe the relationship between employers and universities. Universities benefit tremendously from their monopoly over the certification function.

Is it really that serious? What do you think?

My Favorite Toys Christmas 2011

My friends and family know that I love toys. I keep the most interesting ones on my office desk. For Christmas 2011, I received two toys that I think are just awesome.

The first one is a creative construction kit called Playable Metal. I got the Infinity Model S, which is a collection of aluminum blocks in various shapes (shown at the left). What makes this kit really special is that the pieces are made of aluminum alloy, with a high quality production and finish. These are solid hunks of aluminum and they look and feel just awesome. You bolt two pieces together using special screws that are threaded at both ends, but with reverse threads so that turning it (with a special hex wrench provided) tightens both blocks together at the same time. One example of the result is the object above.

This is a really cool creative desk toy for your inner engineer (for those of you who have an inner engineer, I suppose! I know I do.)

The second toy is Perplexus, a three-dimensional work of art where you have to manuever a small steel ball through a series of ramps, spirals, and drops. At the web link, you can watch a video that gives you an excellent idea of how it works. You can buy the maze ball in three difficulty levels; the one pictured here is the original, with a medium difficulty level. I found it pretty challenging! If you want to start easier, try the “Rookie” and if you’re really ambitious, you can try the extra hard one called “Epic.”



What are your favorite cool toys for creative adults?