Great New Book: The Business of Creativity

I just love this new book by Professor Brian Moeran of Copenhagen Business School. Professor Moeran is a business anthropologist, which means he goes into real companies and watches what real creators do. And just as I’ve found in my research, when you study closely the reality of creative work, you quickly get disabused of a lot of creativity myths. Myths like the belief that creativity results from a solitary person having a flash of insight (when really it emerges from groups and teams); or, myths like the belief that creativity is all about having an idea, when in fact creativity is about engaging in the hard work of making and doing.

In this new book, The Business of Creativity: Toward an Anthropology of Worth, Moeran brings together many different anthropological studies of creative workplaces. After reading this book, you’ll have a deeper understanding of the reality of creativity and innovation, and you’ll never believe in those creativity myths again. I loved the book so much, that I agreed to write one of the back cover endorsements, and here’s what I wrote for the publisher after I read a pre-release draft:

This brilliant book is filled with profound insights on every page. Moeran’s book is a window into the creative process; he convincingly shows that creativity is embedded in cultural practices and collaborative relationships. His ethnographic studies, mostly in Japan but also in Denmark, reveal that creativity emerges from collaborative improvisations, unpredictable but always grounded in conventions, norms, and cultures. If you are interested in creativity, innovation, and the role of creative work in today’s economy, you absolutely must read this book.

When I received my copy of the book last week, I saw the other back-cover endorsement, by one of my scholarly heroes, Howard S. Becker (author of the seminal book Art Worlds):

Brian Moeran’s deep, detailed investigations of a sparkling variety of work situations lead him to an understanding of creativity, solidly based on close observations of people at work, that anchors this field, so often mired in vague talk, in the real world of potters, fashion magazines, perfumers, and other workers who are on creativity’s front line.

Amen. And by the way, if you haven’t read Becker’s book Art Worlds, stop everything you’re doing and buy it right now.

I should probably add that Moeran’s book is not written in the accessible, trade press style you would associate with someone like Malcolm Gladwell; this is a scholarly book, and it will take some effort and energy to read, especially if you are not a scholar or professor. But the effort will be worth it.

Intellectual Property Law Update

Today’s Wall Street Journal reports two new developments in U.S. IP law.

First, on Saturday March 16, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) is dramatically changing its patent system, from a “first to invent” to a “first to file.”* Under the old first-to-invent system, if you could document that you were the first person to come up with an idea, you got the rights to that idea–even if someone else had filed a patent for that idea first. So what’s wrong with that? It sounds logical: if you thought of it first, it shouldn’t matter that you didn’t run to the PTO before everyone else.

There are two problems: First, every other country in the world uses a first-to-file system, which means if you filed first for the patent on the idea, it’s yours, no matter who can prove they really thought of it two years before you did (from their lab notebooks or whatever). In an increasingly international economy, having our patent system align with the rest of the world is a big deal.

Second, under first-to-invent, imagine how complex the court cases get, when some inventor somewhere says that they actually thought of that idea five years ago. Then, lawyers are poring over old lab notebooks and reading hundreds of emails. It might sound simple: All you have to do is find the email that contains the idea on a certain date–but in fact, it always takes a lot of complex interpretation. Was this lab notebook sketch really evidence of the idea? Usually, it’s close but not quite exactly the idea that’s in the patent. Many inventors think their idea really was this idea, but everyone thinks their idea has a broader scope than it really does under patent law. Companies have been spending billions defending themselves against patent lawsuits, and this change is intended to reduce the litigation.

The second article** talks about copyright protection on sound recordings. The Library of Congress wants to convert their old (and decaying) sound recordings to digital, and then make these digital versions available to their patrons. And it turns out, that’s illegal for something like 177 years after the recording was originally made. The copyright protection even for the oldest recordings, made when the technology was first invented back in the 19th century, will not end until 2067 at the earliest. In Europe, in contrast, sound recordings enter the public domain 50 years after their initial release.

The more I learn about IP law, the more I realize it’s a huge complicated mess. I’ve been impressed with my IP law colleagues, negotiating complex issues at the intersection of law, economy, and psychology of creativity (hence my involvement with the issue). But as I concluded back in 2007 in my book Group Genius, patent and copyright regimes today are too restrictive, and this is reducing societal innovation.

*Ashby Jones, “Inventors race to file patents.” WSJ March 15, 2013, p. B6

**Terry Teachout, “Copyright protection that serves to destroy.” WSJ March 15, 2013, p. D6

Innovation When You Least Expect It

I’m in San Francisco to give a talk, and I flew here on United. I discovered that this month’s in-flight magazine has a special section on innovation! I have to admit, I rarely even open the in-flight magazines when I travel, so this is the last thing I was expecting.

It starts with an interview with Fareed Zakaria. I didn’t know he had thought much about innovation, but based on this interview, he’s clearly read the right books and understands the research consensus on how innovation works:

Zakaria has discovered that true innovation isn’t merely the product of a great idea, but a ripple that tends to spread out in unforeseen ways.

Yes, unpredictable and improvisational–like jazz or improv theater.

Another  quotation from Zakaria:

[What’s behind an extraordinary idea] is the interaction between human beings. That depends on openness, because open systems tend to be much more innovative.

That’s why my 2007 book on innovation is called Group Genius, and I call these maximally innovative open systems “collaborative webs.”

Another short article in the issue mentions the massive innovation in the craft brewing business, and also mentions Pernod Ricard’s new Breakthrough Innovation Group, which has come up with new beverages like Absolut Tune. (I’m all for innovation in the beverage sector!) They go on to point out that Kimberly-Clark conducts “expert acceleration sessions”; Intuit organizes “lean start-ins”, and General Mills has two “innovation squads.” (p. 83)

I’ll have to start paying more attention to those in-flight magazines!

*David Carr. “The Hemi Q&A: Fareed Zakaria.” Hemispheres magazine, February 2013, p. 72-73, 130.

Where Do New Toys Come From?

QuintessentialBarbieSome toy brands are cash cows for their companies: Think Barbie and Hot Wheels (Mattel) or My Little Pony (Hasbro) or Lego. These toys have been popular for generations; new parents buy them for their children; they almost sell themselves. But after a few decades of growth, you reach market saturation (every girl who might have a Barbie already has one) and then, how do you grow your revenue? There are two ways that companies like Mattel traditionally grows their revenue:  

  • First, from licensing. They’re really good at making plush dolls of Disney movie characters. (Or I should say, good at designing them and outsourcing their manufacture to China). The licensing deals have pretty fixed profit margins, because a lot of companies can send a CAD design to their supplier in China.
  • Second, from acquiring already established brands. Mattel bought Fisher Price; they bought American Girl; after their Hot Wheels succeeded in the market, they were eventually able to buy their competitor Matchbox. (Where are the antitrust police when you really need them?) But acquisitions, like licensing, come with a pretty fixed (and limited) upside potential. Sure, maybe Mattel can do a somewhat better job of marketing and realizing value from an established brand, but to some extent that upside potential is built into the acquisition price.

A lot of other brand portfolio companies grow in the same two ways. And the growth potential, and the profit margins, are not great.  For real success, you need organic growth–you need to come up with successful new toy brands, in house, all by yourself. And this can be difficult for companies like Mattel and Hasbro, because they’re doing so well with existing brands and with licensing. Organic growth really isn’t in their DNA.

But the pressure is on for more organic growth in the toy industry. Today, it seems that “kids are rewarding toy companies that introduce original lines based on new characters” (according to the Wall Street Journal*). Mattel has a hit with its new Monster High dolls (now a $1 billion brand), and Activision Blizzard with its Skylander videogames, where players place a collectible toy on a small platform, thus spawning that character in the world of the videogame (now a $500 million brand in the U.S.). Organic growth requires innovation–completely new ideas that turn into successful, marketable products. And if your company is focused on brand acquisitions and licensing, you probably don’t do innovation very well. The challenge, then, is getting organic growth without disturbing the existing successful lines of business.

The traditional way to do this is to create a separate unit for innovation: a research & development lab, where creative designers spend all day dreaming up new toy ideas. You might put them in a different office building, so their creativity isn’t poisoned by your boring traditional office environment. Maybe you put in some beanbag chairs and let them walk around in their socks while they drink espresso made by the company barista. However, there’s a big problem with this approach: when R&D sends a great new idea over to the old office building, often no one knows what to do with it. This “hand-off” problem is well known, and there are tons of famous examples (Xerox PARC and the modern personal computer is one of the more famous).

In my book Group Genius, I recommend a different approach: Spread creativity throughout the organization, rather than locking it up in a separate building. Get everyone involved in new ideas and products. Build a collaborative culture where people are sharing their ideas constantly. When the whole organization is working on innovation, then the hand-off problem essentially fades away–because the people doing the innovating are the same people who will then have to make, package, and market the innovation.

*John Kell, “Originality helps build hit toy brands.” Wall Street Journal, Monday, Feb. 11, 2013, p. B2.

The Science of Creativity Workshop

Yesterday I did a one-day workshop near Manhattan for a national group of innovation managers (3M, W. L. Gore, P&G…). I do such workshops a lot, but this was the most knowledgeable audience I’ve ever spoken to. These executives live and breathe creativity and innovation. My challenge was to say something they didn’t know already–to give them information, based in research, that doesn’t appear in the usual business books on innovation. I decided to build the morning session around the psychological research that’s in my upcoming book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. This book (to be published this March) describes the eight basic steps of creativity, and it’s filled with exercises and techniques to help enhance your creative potential.

It turns out that these exercises are a blast to do in a group, and–because they’re derived from psychological research–they do a great job of communicating the essence of how the mind generates new ideas.

The organizer, Peter Koen of Stevens Institute of Technology, also invited neuroscientist Aaron Berkowitz (Harvard) to tell us how creativity is realized in the brain, and psychologist Angela Duckworth (Penn) to tell us about her studies of “grit”–the importance of perserverance and hard work to success. And in the afternoon, I presented my research on the key role of groups and collaboration in creativity (captured in my 2007 book Group Genius).

I wish I could say more, but the participants swore me to secrecy. So all I can say is that I was honored to meet these innovation experts, from companies that I admire. Sometimes when I talk to executives about what innovative organizations look like, they look at me and say “There’s no way my company could ever be that way.” Not these folks–they heard my message, nodded constantly, and said Amen. These companies are showing us all that it’s possible to be innovative in a large, profitable organization that isn’t necessarily a computer company based on the West Coast.

If you want to hear a similar message, you might consider attending the Front End of Innovation conference (in Boston, May 2013) where I’ll be giving a keynote, along with several other innovation thought leaders.

Innovation Is Messy: Boeing’s Dreamliner Story

Boeing’s new Dreamliner airliner has been in the works for nine years. Everyone in the industry agrees that it is an impressive innovation, a huge leap forward in technology. With the many innovations contained in its design, it will burn less fuel, fly longer distances, and keep passengers more comfortable.

The market has spoken in favor of this new innovation: Airlines have ordered a total of 848 of these airplanes, with most of the orders coming in even before they were manufactured. Only 50 Dreamliners are in service so far. And this week, those 50 were grounded by regulators because some of the lithium-ion batteries on board caught fire. (This is the same battery technology that’s probably in your laptop computer, but you’re safe–things are different on an airplane. And by the way, this is the first airplane to use these batteries: one of many separate innovations.)

I’m known as a proponent of bottom up, emergent innovation. This is the central theme of my book Group Genius. When I give keynote talks and workshops, I tend to talk about serial innovators like Google, W. L. Gore, Semco, and Pixar. These companies push innovation down to the lowest possible organizational level, releasing the creative powers of all of their workers. With everyone having ideas constantly, and then having collaborative conversations that bring these ideas together, gradually something significant and innovative can emerge.

But something has always nagged me about this process of emergent bottom-up innovation, and the Boeing situation helps me understand what’s been bugging me. Here’s what I think it is: The bottom-up style of emergent innovation only works in organizations where everyone’s group is relatively independent. By “independent” I mean that when you have new ideas, it doesn’t have implications for anyone outside of your group.

  • When a group at Google developed gmail, it didn’t have any interactions with their search engine, so they could proceed independently without worrying about constantly communicating with the search group.
  • When a team at W. L. Gore developed a new line of guitar strings, that new product didn’t have any implications for Gore’s GoreTex waterproof fabric. So they could proceed independently and not worry about damaging the fabric product lines.

Designing a new airplane over a nine year period is completely different. Every single person’s decisions are deeply interdependent with potentially hundreds of other people. The battery team (or whoever decided on lithium ion batteries) is deeply interdependent with many other design features of the airplane.

It seems to me that whenever you are innovating in a context of high interdependency, you can’t use the same model of distributed, emergent innovation. You need lots of coordination, and that probably means a more top-down, more organized style of innovation. You need lots of communication, constant confirmation that whatever new idea you have isn’t going to mess up some other group’s design.

I still believe that the most powerful form of innovation is the bottom-up, emergent process. But is this really possible in a situation of high interdependency and complexity, like the Boeing Dreamliner?

*Daniel Michaels, “Innovation is messy business.” Wall Street Journal, Thursday January 24, 2013. pp. B1, B2.

Inaugural Edition: Is Obama an Innovative Leader?

I just finished watching Obama’s second inaugural address. My first reaction was: How do you get to be the poet who reads at the inauguration? (Go Richard Blanco!) My second reaction was, Kelly Clarkson and Beyonce really  nailed it.

As a creativity and innovation researcher, I ask myself, is Barack Obama the kind of leader who fosters innovation in the executive branch? In Sunday’s New York Times,  David Rothkopf spoke to this question in “Managing the Oval Office”. (Rothkopf is the  publisher of Foreign Policy magazine.) I completely agree with what he says about how to lead:

Selecting a diverse team, creating a system in which ideas surface, listening to those ideas and then empowering others to put them into action are the cornerstones of good management–and of effective leadership.

No president can succeed unless he views his job as collaborative, as requiring the motivation and empowerment of a vast United States executive branch bureaucracy, as being in partnership with Congress, as benefiting from a broad and diverse group of advisers, as being the kind of undertaking that promotes creativity even if it means embracing unpopular or even unsuccessful ideas.

Rothkopf’s main point is that Obama is not this kind of president. He is blunt about both Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush:

Mr. Obama is a lousy manager. As chief executive he gets a “C”–and then only if graded on a curve [that takes into account how bad George W. Bush was].

I don’t have an opinion on the executive capabilities of either Obama or Bush; I don’t have the data to judge. But I wonder: Is it politically possible for any president to promote creativity by “embracing unpopular or even unsuccessful ideas”? Is the government doomed to forever be un-innovative?

Rx for Creativity: Take Friday Off

Sunday’s New York Times has a fascinating article* by Jason Fried, the co-founder and CEO of software company 37signals. He says that since he reduced everyone’s hours at his company, they’ve all gotten way more creative. Check out what he’s done:

  • From May through October, they switch to a four-day workweek. The result? According to Fried, better work gets done in four days than used to get done in five.
  • In June, every employee gets to work on whatever they want. They put their scheduled work project on hold, and explore ways to improve existing products and new product ideas. In July, everyone shares their ideas on “Pitchday.” Fried reports that this resulted in a burst of creativity, it was “ultraproductive,” and it was a huge morale booster.

What Fried’s done at 37signals is actually a fairly common technique at super-innovative companies. Google, for example, gives its employees one day every week to work on wild and crazy new ideas of their own choosing. That “20 percent time” is where new product offerings emerge, like gmail. W. L. Gore (maker of Gore-Tex waterproof fabric) gives everyone 10 percent of each week for creative time. And the whole idea started way back in the 1940s and 1950s at 3M, which to this day has “15 percent” time for creativity.

So here’s a suggestion for 37signals: Since four days a week works so well from May through October, why not extend the policy for all twelve months?

*Fried, Jason. “Be more productive. Take time off.” New York Times, Sunday, August 19, 2012.

A Home for Creativity Researchers

Creativity researchers don’t really have a place we can call home.

It’s because the study of creativity is interdisciplinary. That’s the key take-home message of my 2012 book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. And that’s a problem, if you want a home, because universities are organized into disciplines–such as psychology, anthropology, economics, computer science. And where do creativity researchers fit, into this organizational structure? Most of us don’t fit comfortably anywhere. So where are we?

Many of us are psychologists, and we have homes in psychology departments. (My PhD is in psychology.) And psychologists have made the majority of the scientific contributions to our understanding of creativity. But being in a psychology department has big limitations: you can’t study cultural influences on creativity, you can’t study group and organizational issues–you really are expected to focus on the solitary individual.

I’ve made my home in a department of education, and education holds probably the second biggest collection of creativity researchers. That’s because educators are concerned with art education; but increasingly, it’s also because our national leaders realize that our schools need to graduate people who are prepared to be creative across the board, including in science and engineering.

There’s other important research being done by sociologists, anthropologists, and economists. It’s all great work. But this disciplinary structure causes a problem, because a complete understanding of creativity requires all of these perspectives to come together, essentially at the same time. Creativity is a multi-levelled phenomenon–to understand it, we need to understand individual minds, group dynamics, and organizational and cultural differences.

This brings me to the title of today’s post: I have found a new home for creativity researchers, at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management (AOM), in Boston last week. This is the big annual meeting of business school researchers; there were over 10,000 scholars in attendance. It was my first time attending AOM, and I was delighted to see so many sessions on creativity and innovation. And the great thing about it is that business scholars are deeply interdisciplinary–the scholarly research being presented often touched on individual, group, and organizational factors, all at once.

Here are the take-home messages from just a few papers I listened to:

  • Frustration leads to enhanced creativity, but only if you’re led by a transformational leader.
  • Cognitive diversity among team members leads to greater team creativity.
  • Panels of dance judges give their evaluations using very similar language to entrepreneur idea judges.
  • Social network centrality contributes to innovation.
  • Minority dissent contributes to innovation.
  • People who have lived overseas are, on average, more creative.
  • When companies create a new organizational unit for their new breakthrough technology, what usually happens is that the new unit gets crushed by the existing power structure. It tends to work better if the new technology stays embedded in the existing structure. (Mary Tripsas)
  • The degree of challenge of a task relates to creativity, but the degree of enjoyment does not.

Great stuff, right?
At the annual American Psychological Association (APA) meeting, Division 10 includes scholars who study the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. I invite those creativity researchers to consider attending the AOM meeting next year! Let me know if you’re going to be there!

Boss Free

Are you angry at your boss? Is incompetent leadership ruining your company? Does your boss squash creative initiative and enforce conformity?

I have always loved my bosses, but bad bosses must be pretty common because Bob Sutton’s new book Good Boss, Bad Boss is selling really well (hot off the successes of his hit The No Asshole Rule). But here’s a radical idea: Dispense with bosses altogether. Think it could never work?

Guess what, there are lots of companies who have chosen to go “boss free.” Valve Corp, a videogame maker in Washington State, has been boss free since 1996. It also has no managers and no official project assignments. How do the 300 employees coordinate their work? They “self manage”: they recruit each other for worthwhile projects, and they roll their desks around (all are on wheels) to reconfigure their work teams as they wish. Salaries and raises are set by committees of your peers. At Valve, with each project one person tends to emerge as the de facto leader, but they’re not assigned from on high.

In my book advocating for the collaborative organization, Group Genius, I wrote about W. L. Gore, another company with a famously flat organizational structure with around 10,000 employees. Management guru Gary Hamel likewise is an advocate, see his book The Future of Management.

These companies are radically different from what you’re used to. It takes almost a year for a new hire to adapt; some of them never do, and they move on to a more traditional company. Getting the culture right is absolutely crucial. Gore CEO Terry Kelly told me that she spends over 50% of her time managing the culture. And having the right staff is essential; you need highly motivated and collaborative employees. At most such companies, the interview process is grueling, because you’re hired by a huge team of ten or more people (because there’s no boss to make the final decision).

If you’re nervous about going completely boss free overnight, it’s possible to take small steps in this direction. For example, at Gore, they tell employees that ten percent of every week is their own “creativity” time, to manage as they wish. Any company could experiment with something similar: Ninety percent of each week you’ll work on your managed project, and the other ten percent, work boss free. But then: What if everyone prefers working boss free?

*See Silverman, Rachel Emma, 2012. “Who’s the boss? There isn’t one.” Wall Street Journal, June 20, 2012, pp. B1, B8.