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.

Collaborative Technology Leads to Collaborative Leadership

In my 2007 book Group Genius, I predicted that the organization of the future would drive innovation with collaboration.

In the ten years since, this prediction has largely come true. Yesterday the Wall Street Journal described how several big companies have shifted to a more collaborative, more innovative organizational structure–enabled by collaborative software that didn’t exist back in 2007, like Slack or Microsoft Teams. This is a big reason why I’ve written a second edition of Group Genius (to be published later this year).

New data-driven capabilities are breaking down barriers between formerly siloed business units, flattening out management structures and streamlining production processes, prompting many firms to redraw leadership roles and responsibilities.

Companies moving toward innovative structures include Equifax, Liberty Mutual, and Procter & Gamble. For example, Equifax is moving to “small, cross-functional teams”. And the role of leaders changes, too: “rather than issue top-down directives, these managers instead strive to help self-directed teams leverage collaboration and sharing tools.” Managers are changing from “dictating how things should be done” to acting more like coaches who guide collaborative teams.

My own research on collaboration and creativity explains why and how this works: Innovation emerges, bottom up, from improvisational, nonlinear, and unpredictable processes. The organizations that can channel and foster this bottom-up, emergent process, will be the winners in the innovation competition of the future.

The organizational structures and cultures that lead to innovation have always been collaborative, distributed, and improvisational. Even before the Internet, a few rare organizations were able to design for innovation and collaboration. But today, Internet-based collaboration software is making it a lot easier for companies to shift to innovative organization designs.

Dancing in the Street

Here’s the creative process behind the hit song by Martha and the Vandellas, “Dancing in the Street.” It’s a story of collaboration and of the zigzagging creative process, as reported to Marc Myers in the WSJ.

  1. In early 1964, songwriter Ivy Jo Hunter was in a Motown studio, playing around on a piano and trying to come up with a song. She started with her left hand, playing a bass rhythm. Then, she developed a melody and some chords. But what she had in mind, she couldn’t play with just two hands. So she went to another songwriter, Paul Riser.
  2. Paul and Ivy talked it out, and then Paul wrote out the music. Paul then created a chord sheet for the house rhythm section, the Funk Brothers. Paul and Ivy knew that the Funk Brothers could make just about any sketch of a song turn into something awesome. The goal was to get the rhythm track on tape, to then work on some lyricS.
  3. Ivy took the tape to producer Mickey Stevenson’s house, because Mickey had a rehearsal room in his attic. Ivy wrote melancholy lyrics; that’s the way he heard the song.
  4. Marvin Gaye just happened to be at the same house. Marvin and Mickey needed a song for singer Kim Weston. Ivy’s ballad lyrics seemed perfect for Kim, but then Marvin had a different idea for the song.
  5. Marvin thought the melancholy lyrics weren’t right for the music. Marvin thought the music was upbeat, just like “dancing in the street.” Then, he realized that could be the name of the song!
  6. Ivy returned to the song and wrote completely different lyrics, for this new idea. Marvin then added various new lyrics.
  7. They still thought the song was going to be Kim’s song. Marvin was recording a vocal demo, to play for Kim, but he couldn’t sing it quite right. Martha Reeves just happened to be in the studio at that time, so they asked her to give it a shot. To everyone’s surprise, Martha totally nailed the song.
  8. The producer Mickey Stevenson said, “I was in big trouble. The song was supposed to be for Kim, and Martha had just aced it.”
  9. The next step was to add in the horn arrangement, and to overdub some percussion effects, like tambourine, and background vocals.

The song turned out to be very different from what we knew as “the Motown sound.” It was funkier, with its prominent bass line and drum beat. It was one of the most influential songs of the 1960s.

Many people think that songwriting is a solo act, where the writer spills her heart out and expresses deeply felt emotions. But just like every other form of creativity, the solitary creator is a myth. Songs, almost always, are created like everything else: Through a collaborative, wandering, unpredictable process.

The Zig Zag Process of Musical Creativity: The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”

When most people think of creativity, they think of the solitary lone genius, creating in silence far from the distractions of other people. Musical composition seems to be a great example of solitary creativity: The image of the singer-songwriter, writing songs about her own personal life and relationships. But this kind of musical creativity is rare. Most songs are composed in a highly collaborative process. One example is the Beach Boys song “Good Vibrations,” which was a flower-power love song.

The band spent 7 months in the studio producing the song. A new interview with four members of the group reveals the wandering, zigzagging, collaborative creative process. Here are a few of the steps in the process:

  1. At the age of 14, a dog barked at Brian Wilson’s mom. She said “Sometimes dogs pick up vibrations from people.”
  2. Nine years later, Wilson remembered this statement, and wrote a short chord progression for a song based on what his mom said. No lyrics were written yet.
  3. Combining cello and electro-theremin on the chorus was his brother Carl’s idea.
  4. They had the instrumentals recorded, and they liked what they heard on the tape, but there still weren’t lyrics for the song. At the time, Wilson was writing lyrics together with Tony Asher. When they first sat down, Wilson was calling the song “Good Vibes.” Asher thought “vibes” sounded cheap and trivial, and suggested “vibrations.”
  5. Asher wrote the first verse and chorus, including “good, good, good, good vibrations.”
  6. At the time, it didn’t really come together, and they put the song aside for a while.
  7. Later, Wilson asked musician Mike Love to come up with some lyrics for the same song. He ended up liking Mike’s lyrics better. (Mike was the one who coined the word “excitations.”)
  8. Since they wrote the first draft of the lyrics, the drug culture of hippies and flower power had emerged in the public eye. Mike was finally ready to write the verses. In the spirit of the newly trending flower power, he wrote lyrics including “I love the colorful clothes she wears and the way the sunlight plays upon her hair.”
  9. A few lines later is the line “on the wind that lifts her perfume through the air.” His original draft said “incense” instead of “perfume” but he decided that incense would be “a little much for Middle America.”
  10. Wilson arranged the vocals for these lyrics. In the studio, Wilson dropped the words “we find” from the end of the second verse, so the bass and drums would come through better.
  11. When the band listened to the initial vocal tracks, they realized the song needed some sort of contrast. Mike Love and Brian Wilson came up with a ballad duet inspired by Stephen Foster’s songs, and they added it as a bridge.

Brian Wilson was a very creative individual, but even Wilson worked in a collaborative web, and the songs we know and love came out of a collaborative, emergent, unpredictable, wandering process.

No Meetings on “Thinking Thursday”

I’m a big fan of collaboration. But like everybody else, I spend hours every day in meetings. Too many hours. Hours that I could be sitting in my office, getting work done.

Now, some companies are taking action. Edmunds.com, the web site for car buyers, has a new policy: No meetings allowed on Thursdays. The hope is that in this new solo time, people will come up with creative ideas. I like it! But, as a creativity researcher, I’m nervous about some of the subtle messages being sent.

First of all, the title: “Thinking Thursdays.” It implies that no one is thinking when they’re in a meeting. Which of course is silly; lots of great thoughts emerge from conversations. There’s a lot of collective thinking that can only happen when you bring a variety of people together.

Second, there’s the assumption that people can only be creative when they’re alone. It’s true that the research shows that you need some solitary time. But research also shows that you need frequent conversations and collaborations to achieve your creative potential.

Still, it’s a good policy if your company has too many meetings, if there’s no time to be alone. Maximum creativity comes from a good balance of group time and solo time.

Do you have stories of how your company helps you to carve out space for solitary time?

The Creative Architect Study

In 1949, the psychologist Donald MacKinnon started a research center at UC Berkeley called “The Institute for Personality Assessment and Research (IPAR).” During World War II, Dr. MacKinnon had developed personality and ability tests for the U.S. military. The purpose of the IPAR was to extend this research into civilian life. One of its priorities was to scientifically determine the traits of the creative personality.

Their most important research study was an analysis of creative architects. Forty of the top architects in the U.S. flew to Berkeley and lived together in an old fraternity house for a weekend. Psychologists gave them a battery of tests, and observed them while they had dinner, lunch, and cocktails. The most famous architects agreed to participate, including Louis Kahn, Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, Richard Neutra, and Eero Saarinen. It’s a legendary story among creativity researchers. And now, there’s a new book that tells the story: The Creative Architect (by Pierluigi Serraino, and reviewed in the Wall Street Journal here).

Unfortunately, the study didn’t result in any strong or surprising findings–other than observing that the architects didn’t fit the stereotype of a creative person. The study found no evidence that creative people fit the widespread image of “an eccentric not only in thinking but in appearance, dress, and behavior; a Bohemian, an egghead, a longhair…a true neurotic, withdrawn from society, inept in his relations with others” (MacKinnon, 1962/1978, p. 178). The architects seemed to be pretty normal and successful professionals.

What’s more, they had remarkably ordinary childhoods: When they recalled their childhoods, they described the classic upper-middle-class, educated, American lifestyle: fathers were effective in their demanding careers, mothers were autonomous and often had their own careers, religion was important but not central or doctrinaire, families emphasized the development of a personal code of ethics, parents were not overly judgmental but encouraged the child’s ideas and expressions, and the family moved frequently (paraphrasing from MacKinnon’s book).

I recommend reading the WSJ review, and getting the book!

McKinnon, D. W. (1962/1978). In search of human effectiveness. Buffalo, NY: Creative Education Foundation.

Sawyer keynote at IDEAS conference in Calgary, Canada

I just delivered the keynote address “Educating for Innovation” at this big event in Calgary, with teachers, school leaders, education professors, and policy types:

2016 Calgary photo

After the keynote, I did a breakout session where I shared my research on how art school professors teach. Then, I asked the audience to work in small groups to apply these practices to their own teaching in math and science. They all had great ideas about how to teach for creativity! The lessons from art and design pedagogy are really powerful.