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.

Books About Complexity and Emergence

I thought the market for complexity books had been saturated, but here’s another one: A Crude Look at the Whole  by John H. Miller. (WSJ  review here.)

The first wave of complexity books was in the mid 1990s:

The heyday of complexity books was just after 2000 (my own book appeared in 2005):

In just the past few years, we have

According to Ronald Bailey’s WSJ  review, Miller’s book covers familiar ground. Like my 2005 book, he argues that “societies are complex systems”; that social phenomena “emerge unpredictably from components”; that “simple parts interact in complex ways to create an emerging whole”. His examples of emergence from complexity are familiar from these earlier books: biological evolution, markets, the Internet, political protests. Bailey’s review is politely critical of the book; he says “it’s hard to see how complexity science is much help to current policy makers or citizens.” I disagree; I think that understanding complexity and emergence has incredible value, especially in understanding social systems. Maybe Miller’s book isn’t the first one you should read, but the long list of earlier books (and their strong sales) demonstrates that this research is helping lots of people.

The Emergence of Creativity: Matt Ridley’s New Book

You’ve got to read the excerpt from Matt Ridley’s new book in today’s Wall Street Journal. Just released this week, his book is called The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge. I have a lot of respect for his previous books, so I’m delighted to learn that his new book makes the same points as my 2007 book Group Genius.

Here are the key features of innovation, described in both of our books:

  • The stories we hear about genius inventors, like Thomas Edison inventing the light bulb, are always myths. Ridley and I both describe the real history of the light bulb, which involves lots of people way before Edison. (Group Genius, pages 110, 196)
  • “Innovation emerges from the bottom up,” I write in Group Genius  (page 16). I show that innovation emerges from self-organizing systems, and this is Ridley’s main point, too.
  • Ridley writes that innovation is “incremental” rather than “revolutionary.” That’s why I called one of my chapters “Small Sparks”: to emphasize that innovation doesn’t come from a big flash of insight. “Successful creators know how to keep their sparks coming in a process that unfolds over time” (Group Genius, page 97).
  • Ridley describes the historical research on multiple discovery, as I do on pages 192-193, with this example: “In the 1920s, numerous teams invented television in parallel.”
  • Ridley argues that patent protection is too broad and is based on the mythical view of the lone inventor. I make the same point on pages 176-224, especially pages 221-225: “Current policy favors linear, centralized innovation and blocks the natural rhythm of innovation”.
  • Ridley demolishes the idea that innovation comes from a linear process; this is the most important point of Group Genius  (for example, pages 158-159, “Beyond Linear Innovation”)

Ridley’s WSJ  excerpt is filled with great stories of real innovations. I come to the same conclusions, with some of the same historical examples, and also by drawing on the science of creativity. Inspired by my studies of jazz and improv theater, I think of creativity as improvisation. Group Genius argues that the most creative improvisations are non-linear, emergent, unpredictable, and inefficient. Ridley has a bit more to say about the political and economic implications of this new, more realistic, understanding of innovation (for example, he concludes that government doesn’t need to fund scientific research). I have a bit more to say about how you can use this research to become more successfully creative, both on your own and in teams. It’s cool that Ridley and I come to the same conclusions from really different directions. If you like Group Genius, you really should check out The Evolution of Everything. (I’ll post a review after I’ve read the whole book.)

 

 

Group Genius: Radical in 2007, Conventional Wisdom Today

In 2007, my book Group Genius made a radical claim: The discipline of psychology could never explain creativity, because creativity emerges from collaborative groups and networks. In 2007, this put me at odds with most of my creativity research colleagues; they studied solitary individuals. And it was a bit cutting edge for the business world, too; most business books were still focused on enhancing the creative potential of each employee:

We’re drawn to the image of the lone genius whose mystical moment of insight changes the world. But the lone genius is a myth; instead, it’s group genius that generates breakthrough innovation. Collaboration drives creativity because innovation always emerges from a series of sparks–never a single flash of insight. (p. 7)

My timing turned out to be perfect for the business world. In 2007, top executives were beginning to realize that collaboration was the key to innovation. They were eager to learn about my seven key characteristics of effective creative teams and companies:

  1. Innovation emerges over time
  2. Successful collaborative teams practice deep listening
  3. Team members build on their collaborator’s ideas
  4. Only afterwards does the meaning of each idea become clear
  5. Surprising questions emerge
  6. Innovation is inefficient
  7. Innovation emerges from the bottom up

In recent years, several new books have appeared that reinforce my argument: Great creativity always emerges over time, from collaborative pairs, teams, and distributed networks. I’ve just read two wonderful books that make a particularly strong case for collaborative creativity:

Both books are wonderfully written. They are true to the science and the historical record. Each of them have turned up surprising and little-known details about creativity. If you read these books, along with Group Genius, you’ll have a really good understanding of what science has discovered about innovation.

Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From

Johnson’s central claim is that good ideas don’t come from inside some genius’s brain:

If we want to understand where good ideas come from, we have to put them in context. The argument of this book is that a series of shared properties and patterns recur again and again in unusually fertile environments. (p. 17)

In the last three chapters of Group Genius, I describe the “collaborative webs” that foster innovation, and the characteristics of environments that make them grow. Johnson’s book builds on my work, and adds in some really fascinating stories. (He comes to the same conclusion that I do about what sort of intellectual property law regime results in the greatest innovation.) Consistent with my seven points above, he argues that innovation emerges from tinkering and bricolage. The most innovative environments are like my collaborative webs:

Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts. (p. 35) [These environments have] a capacity to make new connections with as many other elements as possible. And a “randomizing” environment that encourages collisions between all the elements in the system. (p. 51) The most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans at a table. (p. 61)

Johnson cites a lot of the same research that I do, and tells many of the same stories (Kevin Dunbar’s research; Gruber’s book about Darwin’s notebooks; brainstorming research; Burt’s research on structural holes; MIT’s Building 20). He echoes my concept of group flow with his term collective flow (both of us building on Dr. Csikszentmihalyi).

Johnson’s book is a fascinating read; he’s a great storyteller. In the last chapter, he comes to the same conclusion that I did in 2007:

A majority of breakthrough ideas emerge in collaborative environments. (p. 228)

Walter Isaacson, The Innovators

Isaacson’s book focuses more narrowly–on the technology innovations that resulted in today’s tablet, smartphone, networked world. We sometimes take this world for granted, but it didn’t exist just a few years ago. I’m surprised to see how well Isaacson’s book is selling, because it’s highly detailed and very focused. Maybe there are more nerds out there that I realized! Personally, I loved it, because I participated in this history. I arrived at MIT in 1978, and received my computer science degree in 1982. I did my undergraduate thesis on MIT’s version of the Xerox PARC Smalltalk computer, the LISP Machine, so I was using a windows and mouse interface as early as 1980. I played the original video game, Space War, in the MIT student center. I remember how cool it was to use the Arpanet and log in to computers all over the world (one country I remember logging into was Norway). There were no passwords and no security; when I wanted to read a draft of Professor Marvin Minsky’s new book, I just went into his personal file folders and read his drafts. I met Richard Stallman, who tried to get me to participate in his “Free Unix!” project. Isaacson’s book was perfect for me.

Chapter after chapter, he takes up the core innovations: Computer hardware. Software and programming. Microchips. Video games. The Internet. The personal computer. And every single one emerged from collaboration:

The main lesson to draw from the birth of computers is that innovation is usually a group effort, involving collaboration between visionaries and engineers, and that creativity comes from drawing on many sources. Only in storybooks do inventions come like a thunderbolt, or a lightbulb popping out of the head of a lone individual in a basement or a garret or a garage. (p. 85)

The formation of ideas was shaped more by the iterative interplay within the group than by an individual tossing in a wholly original concept. The sparks come from ideas rubbing against each other rather than as bolts out of the blue. (p. 110)

As with Johnson’s book, Isaacson tells several of the same stories I tell in Group Genius: Xerox PARC, Richard Stallman and GNU/Linux, how the windows-and-mouse interface emerged from successive incremental ideas. He comes to the same conclusion I did in 2007:

First and foremost is that creativity is a collaborative process. Innovation comes from teams more often than from the lightbulb moments of lone geniuses. (p. 479)

Like any author, I hope that my book stands the test of time. Group Genius contains many stories that aren’t in these books: The creation of the airplane, the mountain bike, the Monopoly boardgame, emergency and disaster response teams, Honda’s motorcycles, basketball teams, the ATM cash machine, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and more. And, I tend to provide a bit more practical advice for how to use this research to be more creative. So if you like these two books, I hope you’ll read mine too!

It’s About the Group, Genius

But what about those moments when you have a sudden realization, you get an idea while taking a walk, you experience a flash of insight? Isn’t that still really about solitary processes within your own private brain? No:

Researchers have discovered that the mind itself is filled with a kind of internal collaboration, that even the insights that emerge when you’re completely alone can be traced back to previous collaborations. (Group Genius, p. xii)

Forget the myths about historical inventors; the truth is always a story of group genius. (Group Genius, p. xiii)

Standing against this new consensus about how creativity and innovation work, many of my creativity research colleagues remain focused on individual creativity. If you skim the pages of the Creativity Research Journal, you’ll see almost exclusively psychological research that focuses on mental processes inside the minds of solitary people. But this narrow focus is holding us back, as I write at the end of Group Genius:

If you believe that creativity is reserved for special geniuses, you’re more likely to think that you can’t be creative. If you believe that creativity is an unexplainable gift that happens in a magical flash of insight, you won’t invest in the hard and sustained work that it takes to generate a long string of small sparks. If you believe that creativity happens to nonconforming, solo operators, you won’t work together with others to build group genius. (p. 225-226)

We need an interdisciplinary science of creativity, one that brings together psychologists with scholars who study groups, teams, and collaborative webs in organizations. Here’s what I hoped for in my 2012 overview of creativity research, Explaining Creativity:

Creativity research in the future will be increasingly interdisciplinary, bringing together scientists who are experts in multiple levels of analysis–neurons, mental states, groups, and organizations. An interdisciplinary science of creativity has the potential to provide a more complete scientific explanation of how new things emerge from human activity. (pp. 432-433)

Other books about collaborative creativity

My 2007 book wasn’t the first to emphasis the power of collaboration. I built on prior work by adding insights from my own scientific research, on jazz ensembles and improv theater groups, using interaction analysis methodology, and I wove it together with some cool case studies. Prior books that I loved include:

Some books after 2008 that jive with Group Genius include:

How Art Gets Created (Homage to Howie Becker)

My approach to creativity was deeply inspired by Howie Becker’s 1982 book Art Worlds–a close analysis of the work done by painters, sculptors, and photographers, of course, but also all of the other roles necessary to get art done and to get it valued, sold, and talked about. Becker made a convincing argument that art doesn’t come from the solitary artist in the studio; there are many other people involved. They remain hidden only because we aren’t looking for them–we believe so much in the romantic myth of the solitary lone genius that we look right past everyone else involved in the collective creative process.

Basically, Becker believes that Yogi Berra was right: you really can observe the most by watching.

This quotation comes from a fascinating portrait of Becker in the latest New Yorker magazine. Becker is now 86 years old and spends most of his time in Paris, where he’s a huge academic star. Adam Gopnik interviewed Becker at a French restaurant, and here’s what Becker told Gopnik about how art gets created:

Mine is a view that–well, it takes a village to write a symphony and get it performed. It’s not just the composer. The great case for me is in film, because nobody ever figured out who the real artist is: the screenwriter or the director or who? Or, rather, everybody figured it out, but never figured out the same thing. Early on when I was reading about art, I read a book by Aljean Hametz on the making of “The Wizard of Oz.” She was the daughter of someone in the wardrobe department of M-G-M, and she explains that there were four directors of that film, and the guys who thought of the crucial thing, the change from black-and-white to color when the characters enter Oz, were the composer and the lyricist! In an important way, I took the list of credits at the end of a Hollywood film as my model of how artistic creation really happens.

Creativity consists of real people who are trying to get things done, largely by getting other people to do things that will assist them in their project. The resulting collective activity is something that perhaps no one wanted, but is the best everyone could get out of this situation, and therefore what they all, in effect, agreed to.

In a nutshell, this is the core message of my 2007 business book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. Of course I hope you read my book, but if you then want to go deeper, and really understand creativity, you have to read Howard Becker.

What Political System Best Fosters Innovation?

My research shows that innovation always emerges from collaborative groups and distributed social networks. My 2007 book Group Genius proves that the lone inventor is a myth. All creativity emerges from many contributions, from many different people, distributed through space and time.

The most innovative teams, organizations, and economic systems are the ones that enable everyone’s ideas to come together most effectively. I can talk for hours about the implications of this research for organizational structure and culture, but I tend to avoid discussing the political and economic implications.  Do you think that the “group genius” message is implicitly critical of Capitalism–with its narrative of the solitary individual, the hard-working entrepreneur, fighting against entrenched interests? And if so, wouldn’t group genius then be associated with Socialism, with collective systems that have everyone working together toward a common goal?

If you’re intrigued by this question, you should read columnist Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal:

When future historians look back on our times, they will ask, why did the U.S. dominate all its peers when it came to the really big innovations? It didn’t happen because enlightened mandarins in the federal bureaucracy and national labs were peering around the corners of the future. Innovation happens when the federal government isn’t paying attention, and because entrepreneurs can go against the grain and ignore the consensus of experts. And, because our capital markets are sometimes willing to bet against those experts.

Innovation depends less on developing specific ideas than it does on creating broad spaces. Autocracies can always cultivate their chess champions, piano prodigies and nuclear engineers; they can always mobilize their top 1% to accomplish some task. The autocrats’ quandary is what to do with the remaining 99%. They have no real answer.

A free society that is willing to place millions of small bets on persons unknown and things unseen doesn’t have this problem. Flexibility is its true test of strength. Success is a result of experiment not design. Failure is tolerable to the extent that adaptation is possible.

This is the American secret, which we often forget because we can’t imagine it any other way. It’s why we are slightly shocked to find ourselves coming out ahead. [I have paraphrased Stephens’ words a bit here and there…]

Stephens ends by attributing the success of the United States to group genius:

We are larger than our leaders. We are better than our politics. We are wiser than our culture. We are smarter than our ideas.

The Airplane: Not Invented By the Wright Brothers

One of the most fascinating stories in patent law is now over 100 years old: the story about how the Wright Brothers tried to lock up all legal rights to human flight. I told this story in my 2007 book Group Genius, and I’ve just learned that Lawrence Goldstone has told a new version–in his forthcoming book Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss and the Battle to Control the Skies, excerpted in the Wall Street Journal April 9, 2014.* In Group Genius, I use the Wright Brothers’ legal battles to demonstrate how “collaborative webs” are always more innovative than solitary lone geniuses. The Wrights tried to lock up the rights, and it ended up killing their own creative potential:

[In 1903] They didn’t get a patent for “flight”; they were granted a patent for their key innovation, a lateral control mechanism that steered by warping the entire wings forward or backward….Instead of showing off their new invention, they holed up in Dayton, refused to do press interviews, and wouldn’t let photographers near the farm field where they tested small improvements. On September 30, 2007, Alexander Graham Bell donated $20,000 to found the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA). Their goal was to win Scientific American magazine’s prize for the first plane that could fly a kilometer in a straight line. Their first plane was tested on March 12, 1908. It looked a lot like the Wright’s plane, but to avoid infringing on the Wright’s patent, it didn’t use wing warping for lateral control; instead, it used a system of trusses to curve the whole wing up or down. Casey Baldwin, an AEA member, designed the next plane; for lateral control, it used ailerons–small pivoting surfaces at the trailing edge of the wing. The third AEA project was Glenn Curtiss’s June Bug, and he flew it a mile and won the Scientific American trophy. The Wrights couldn’t even enter because their plane didn’t have wheels (they launched their plane from a special railroad track) and couldn’t take off from the field. When Curtiss started getting a lot of press attention, the Wrights filed a patent infringement lawsuit. They claimed their patent controlled all lateral steering mechanisms; if true, then no plane could ever fly without infringing the patent. In 1913, a federal court sided with the Wrights and ordered Curtiss to cease making airplanes using ailerons. Curtiss then built a different plane, based on an 1899 design by Samuel Pierpont Langley; now Curtiss could claim his idea came before the Wright’s patent, and the case dragged on into World War I. (pp. 189-191)

Because this legal fight blocked American innovation, the collaborative web instead kept innovating in Europe, where the Wright brothers weren’t able to enforce their patent. British, German, and French airplane industries were booming, with constant innovations leaving the Americans behind. In my public talks, I often show photos of the airplanes being built in Europe; they look like modern planes. Then, I show a 1914 photo of the Wright brothers’ plane; it has barely changed from 1903. In 1917, when the U.S. entered the war, the U.S. government forced the Wright and Curtiss companies to form a patent pool with open sharing.

Goldstone’s new book tells a portion of the story; I got many of the above details from Shulman’s 2002 book, Unlocking the Sky: Glenn Hammond Curtiss and the Race to Invent the Airplane. Goldstone notes that the Wrights were indeed granted a extremely broad patent, and the court upheld it in 1913. (I’ve read the court decision, by Judge Learned Hand; it’s, fascinating and it has lessons for today’s patent fights.) Goldstone concludes:

Nowadays, both the number and the nature of lawsuits involving software, hardware, and even design minutia are testament that patent law remains the damper on innovation that it was when airplane development was nearly grounded in its infancy.

*Goldstone, L. 2014. “How a Patent Fight Grounded the Wright Brothers.” Wall Street Journal, April 9, p. A13.