Fast Company: 50 Most Innovative Companies

Fast Company has just published its annual list of the world’s 50 most innovative companies. It’s easy to be skeptical, given that they change the list every year; I’m sure that all 50 companies don’t change their level of innovation every year…but the magazine has to make it newsworthy. Anyway, all fifty companies are definitely innovative!

Here’s what I found most interesting–in  the top 50, a lot of innovation is based in collaboration. The highlights:

  • Facebook’s CEO Sheryl Sandberg says “Creativity’s never been so important.” (ranking: #6)
  • Slack and its collaboration app ranked #23.
  • Glossier (#24) collaborates with customers to create cult cosmetics. (“Collaborating with Customers” is the title of one of my chapters in Group Genius)
  • Adobe (#35) for pushing its creativity suite into the cloud

FYI the number one most innovative company is Amazon.

Group Genius: Today It’s the Accepted Wisdom

In 2007, my business book Group Genius  was one of the first books about collaboration and innovation. Since 2007, a lot more books have been published on that topic, each one affirming the points in my book. That’s because Group Genius  was grounded in scientific research, and that research has stood the test of time.

The March 13 article “In Search of the Perfect Team” in the Wall Street Journal* makes the same recommendations that I did in 2007:

  • “Each member of the team is engaged” (WSJ)–everyone talks and listens about the same. This is in Group Genius, pp. 50-51
  • “There are a diversity of ideas, and everyone is willing to consider new ideas” (WSJ)–In Group Genius, pp. 70-72, also pp. 14-15
  • “Everyone is setting goals for a project” (WSJ)–each person explores something slightly different, but goes in the same direction. This tension is one of the main themes of Group Genius, but it’s most explicit on pp. 44-46.

The WSJ  article connects these themes to new technologies, like Slack, and Google’s data-based approach to team productivity in their People Operations Department. These help drive collaboration; I talk about Slack and also Google’s research in the forthcoming second edition of Group Genius  (coming this May!). But this technology doesn’t change the underlying social dynamics of effective collaboration. Stay grounded in the research, and you’ll stand the test of time.

*2017, May 13, “In search of a perfect team.” Stu Wu, Wall Street Journal, p. R6.

SXSWedu 2017 was Awesome!

I spent a stimulating and exhausting week at the South-by-Southwest EDU conference in Austin, TX. It’s the premier event for new and innovative education products. I saw so many fascinating presentations, and everyone I met was super-interesting. I’ll try to capture my experience with just two events.

The firWP_20170306_13_27_47_Panoramast was the SXSW Playground–a big convention center ballroom, filled with fun educational technology. I sat in on a workshop for Bloxels–where you build a videogame world using colored blocks, then you snap a photo of the blocks and the computer turns it into your own virtual world. That’s the picture at the right.

Like the Bloxels, all of the technologies were designed for kids to be creators and make things. The robots and software guided learners as they programmed robots and computer games. One of my favorites was a drone that you can fly around yourself using Snap, a drag-and-drop programming environment that you can learn in a few minutes.WP_20170306_13_46_19_Pro

Second, I had a great time leading the workshop “Creative Teaching” along with Tacy Trowbridge from Adobe, and Villy Wang from Baycat. The room was filled to capacity with 60 conference attendees, ready to be active creators. We led them through a tower-building activity using 6 pieces of newspaper and tape. The take-home lessons were about group dynamics, design thinking, and iterative making. Here’s one of the groups, who used an analogy with a Christmas tree skirt for the base of their tower:

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Thank you to Tacy and Villy, I learned so much from doing the workshop with them!

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It’s always fun to do a book signing. I gave out a bunch of my Zig Zag creativity cards! Keep being creative everybody!

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Bumblebees Can Learn

Check out this cool new study published in SCIENCE Magazine. The study proves that bees can learn, and they can adapt what they’ve learned to new situations.

The researchers created some really clever tasks for the bees, and the descriptions of what the bees had to do are pretty complicated. First, the researchers showed the bees a small yellow ball at the center of a blue circle. The ball had a sugar solution inside, and the bees learned to go up to the ball, and get the sugar, pretty quickly (within 48 hours).

Next, they put the yellow ball outside the blue circle, and the bees could only get to the sugar after they pushed the ball into the center of the circle. The researchers started by showing the bee how to do it–they made a stick with a plastic bee at the end, and the manipulated the stick so that the plastic bee moved the ball into the center. At first, the bee could eat the sugar once the plastic bee had finished, but after a few times of this, the bee had to move it himself to get the sugar.

14 bees figured out how to move it themselves within 10 tries. The researchers got rid of the four dumber bees who couldn’t figure it out. Then, the researchers gave the bees a much larger blue circle, and all of the bees still could move the yellow ball to the center, ten tries in a row. The bees kept learning; on each of the ten trials they took less time to finish, and their path to the center become more direct.

Next the researchers put the bees through a complicated task that’s hard to describe briefly. In short, they showed that the bees learned best when they could watch another bee doing it, compared to another learning situation where they didn’t have another bee to watch. That’s social learning–learning from watching and imitating someone you recognize.

Then, with yet another complicated experiment, they showed that the bees aren’t just copying what they see another bee do, but that they learn to adapt what they’ve learned to new situations. For example, if they were shown another bee moving the farthest away ball, they knew to move the closest ball instead of that farther one. And second, if the ball color changed to black, they could still do it.

The researchers point out that these artificial tasks are way harder than anything bees have to do in the wild. Evolution didn’t require this adaptation (of being able to learn this way). This means that animals can end up smarter than they need to survive in the wild. (We’re talking about you, human beings!)

Here’s their conclusion:

Such unprecedented cognitive flexibility hints that entirely novel behaviors could emerge relatively swiftly in species whose lifestyle demands advanced learning abilities.

We Never Think Alone

Here’s a wonderful new book, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. The authors, professors Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman, argue that it’s “a misunderstanding of knowledge” to think that “it goes on between our ears.”

What really sets human beings apart is not our individual mental capacity. The secret to our success is our ability to jointly pursue complex goals by dividing cognitive labor. All of our world-altering innovations were made possible by this ability. Each of us knows only a little bit, but together we can achieve remarkable feats. Knowledge isn’t in my head or in your head. It’s shared.

I love it! I made the same point in my book Group Genius: creativity isn’t really about what’s going on inside your head. Of course, each person’s mind plays a key role in innovation; but creativity is always social, even when you’re alone. Lots of us have good ideas when we’re alone, but we can only have those ideas because of previous conversations, interactions, and encounters–with other people, with other ideas, participating in social networks.

Check out Fernbach’s and Sloman’s book The Knowledge Illusion!

The quotations above are from a NYTimes article by Fernbach and Sloman.

What Happens Next? (The Problem with Plot)

Novelist Marisa Silver describes the creative process, in the Sunday NYTimes book review:

My particular writing methodology, if it could be called that, might be summarized this way: Go inside a dark tunnel filled with conflicting, incongruent ideas, paw around for a few years. Finally, figure out how to crawl toward a pinprick of light that might be an exit.

What a great description of the creative process! In every field, it’s a wandering, unpredictable path. You don’t know at the beginning where you’re going to end up. You just have to engage in the work, and wait for the questions and ideas to emerge from the process.

And Silver writes this about plots in novels:

I find plot the most fascinating and vexing element of fiction for the simple reason that its artificiality can feel difficult to mask. After all, if there is any plot to a life, it can be organized only in retrospect. We are all, for the most part, pawing around in the dark looking for evidence of light, floundering from here to there. We don’t have an author choreographing clear conflicts, rising tensions and satisfying denouements.

Creativity Keynote at Rice University

Yesterday, I gave a big public lecture at Rice University in Houston, one of the top universities in the U.S. Like many universities, Rice is trying to foster a more creative and entrepreneurial culture across campus. The centerpiece of the effort is a wonderful new building, the Moody Center for the Arts, that’s just opened right in the middle of campus. It’s my kind of architecture–I like the boxy contemporary style.

I was honored to learn that a thousand people signed up for my talk! So they moved it from the small space at the Moody Center (my talk is one of the center’s inaugural events) to the much bigger Stude concert hall, which seats a thousand. I loved performing in the Stude; the acoustics were incredible. I probably could have done my 45 minute talk without a microphone (but I’m glad I had one!)

My core message was that creativity isn’t about having a brilliant insight. Instead, creativity is about having small, everyday insights–ideas that all of us can have, if we engage in research-based creative habits. And it’s important that we realize that creativity follows an unpredictable, wandering path. You can’t know where you’ll end up, and this can make people nervous. You have to learn to trust in the process, and let the creativity emerge from the work.