Innovation in Korea

To prepare for my keynote talk on Thursday at the Global Leaders Forum in Seoul, I did some research on innovation in Korea. I was impressed to learn that Korea tops many international indices of innovation. In 2013, Korea was first in the European Union ranking:

2015 EU innovation rankings 2013And again in 2014, South Korea topped the EU annual innovation index.

It’s not just the EU, either; in 2015, Korea was ranked the number one innovative country by Bloomberg Business Week magazine.

But Korean leaders are still worried because of one big issue: They believe their schools aren’t educating for creativity. The current President has been supporting a huge initiative to shift Korea to an innovation economy. The country’s leaders realize that the manufacturing sector won’t grow Korea into the future, even though it raised Korea up over the past decades.

How to increase creativity and shift the country to an innovation economy? The solution lies in the schools. And yet, Korea’s schools are some of the most hierarchical, most anti-creative in the world. They’re excellent at drilling students in the type of memorization that results in success on standardized, paper and pencil tests. They score very high on international rankings. But creativity researchers and learning scientists know that this type of knowledge doesn’t support creativity.

Some international creativity indices, those that measure from the bottom up the creative potential of a country, rank Korea much lower. In Richard Florida’s creative cities index, Seoul Korea didn’t make the top 25.

That’s what Chosun TV invited me to talk about at their Global Leaders Forum. I’m optimistic about Korea, but I believe their schools need to change to foster greater creativity.

Big Company Innovation Labs Won’t Work

Creativity research* has shown that all companies benefit from very similar innovation strategies, whether they’re technology companies or not. We mostly hear about software and Internet-based startups these days; and most incubator spaces (sometimes called “innovation labs”) are filled with smartphone apps and web developers.

Other industries are setting up innovation labs, and they almost always get built in San Francisco’s Bay Area. There’s nothing new here: back in the 1970s, Xerox, the copier company based in Rochester New York, decided to open its innovation lab in Palo Alto. Today’s Wall Street Journal lists a few of the companies who’ve created spaces in the Bay Area: Lowe’s, Home Depot, Target, Walgreens, Sears, Visa.

I predict these efforts won’t work very well. We already know why, from the legendary failure of Xerox PARC. Back in the 1970s, developers at Xerox PARC invented the first windows-and-mouse computer, the first laser printer, and the first network to link computers (the Ethernet). It was called Smalltalk, and it was at decades ahead of its time. Both Microsoft and Apple based their windows operating systems on what came out of Xerox PARC. But the executives back in Rochester thought they were a bunch of crazy hippies and they said “Hey, we’re a copier company, why are you guys wasting your time on this stuff?” The book Fumbling the Future pretty much says the same thing that I say in my book Group Genius, and today’s Wall Street Journal identifies the key problem: if you create a separate R&D group, to keep the innovative people from being constrained by the traditional company culture, you also isolate the rest of the company from innovation. The labs are just too far removed; different organizational cultures develop; the innovation group just can’t communicate with the rest of the company.

Nordstrom, one of the earliest companies to build an innovation lab (in 2010) found this out. They’ve now shrunk their lab dramatically, and instead have spread innovators throughout the company. Another example: Amazon’s Silicon Valley innovation center failed to meet expectations.

I explain why in Group Genius: For successful innovation, you have to spread a culture of creativity throughout the organization. Creating a separate innovation lab doesn’t work.  It’s just a trendy name for what used to be called the R&D group. We learned that didn’t work back in the 1970s and 1980s. Calling it an “innovation lab” doesn’t make any difference in the underlying dynamics of innovation.


*Sawyer, Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration.

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:

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 Secret of San Francisco’s Entrepreneurial Success

I’ve been reading and re-reading an awesome article about San Francisco’s entrepreneurial culture, by Nathan Heller in the New Yorker magazine.* Heller spent some time shadowing Johnny Hwin, an entrepreneur and musician who he calls “one of the best-connected kids in San Francisco.” Heller’s article is driven by a puzzle he can’t figure out:

Hwin is “a collective kid who, for reasons I still didn’t understand, seemed to have mastered everything about the new Bay Area and how it worked….I didn’t understand how people like Hwin appeared to float above the exigencies of career….If I hoped to understand the first thing about American culture in this decade, I realized, I’d need to figure out exactly what was going on in San Francisco.”

Heller’s article is long and brilliantly written. To really get the full sense of what he learned, you really need to read the full article. But here I’ve excerpted some highlights:

The art and technology collective called the Sub…is part of a network of places where the new mode of American success is being borne out…..a blend of business and small-scale creative art.

Hwin has been working as a musician, a tech entrepreneur, and an investor in other people’s startups. His two-person band, Cathedrals, just released a debut single and is producing an album. He and a friend are managing investments of up to two hundred and fifty thousand dollars in private companies.

People who are young and urban and professionally diffuse [the three business card life] tend to regard success in terms of autonomy–designing your life as you want–rather than Napoleonic domination.

San Francisco’s young entrepreneurs appear less concerned about flaunting their earnings than about showing that they can act imaginatively, with conspicuously noble ethics. Hwin is into “creative, mindful living” in part because it helped his business interests.

In the second half of the article, Heller picks up on this theme of “business interests” blending with creative and mindful living, and begins to delve down into the underlying core of the culture:

In 1966, Hendrik Hertsberg wrote about San Francisco’s “new bohemianism” of the Hippies and the Beats. The youth, the upward dreams, the emphasis on lifestyle over other status markers, the disdain for industrial hierarchy, the social benefits of good deeds and warm thoughts–only proper nouns distinguish this description from a portrait of the startup culture in the Bay Area. It is startling to realize that urban tech life is the closest heir to the spirit of the sixties, and its creative efflorescence, that the country has so far produced.

But Heller’s article ends on a critical note:

The result is a rising metropolitan generation that is creative, thoughtful, culturally charismatic, swollen with youthful generosity and dreams–and fundamentally invested in the sovereignty of private enterprise…. I just sat there, wondering whether this was it, the kingdom of which we so wildly, and so effortlessly, dreamed.

I am not sure I agree with Heller’s critical tone. I know many of these people, and they believe there is no contradiction in doing good and doing well. I myself am a former hippie, Grateful Deadhead, Rainbow-gathering attendee, and now I’m advising corporations on innovation, and creating a university program in educational entrepreneurship…and I don’t see any contradiction. It’s not like the Yuppies of the 1980s, who were former hippies who worried they were selling out by wearing suits and selling junk bonds. Hwin doesn’t worry about selling out, because he is pure; it’s never crossed his mind. Heller’s article, although wonderful, seems like an early thought piece…like Heller is still mulling it over, still not sure what to make of this new cultural moment. Maybe none of us really are. There are strong parallels with David Brooks’ 2001 book Bobos in Paradise, referring to the “bohemian bourgeois,” the former hippies who became affluent and yet retained the same values. Heller certainly made me see things, and wonder about things, I hadn’t before. I hope Heller continues and turns this into a series of extended articles about entrepreneurship and modern America.

*Nathan Heller (2013, October 14). “Bay Watched.” The New Yorker Magazine, pp. 68-79.

Everyday Innovation

Have you ever modified something you bought, to make it work better, or to serve your own unique needs? Have you ever created something from scratch to solve a problem?

This is what innovation researchers call “consumer innovation” or “household innovation,” and it turns out it’s surprisingly common. MIT Professor Eric von Hippel, long famous for his studies of user innovation, has just published a fascinating study of household innovation in the United Kingdom.* Hippel and his colleagues did phone interviews with 1,173 adults, and found that 6.1 percent of adults in the U.K. had created something, or creatively modified something–that’s 2.9 million people! Among the household innovators, on average each of them had created eight innovations in the prior three years, innovations in many different categories, like these:

  • Craft and shop tools: “I created a jig to make arrows. The jig holds the arrow in place and turns at the same time…Jigs available on the market do not rotate.”
  • Sports and hobby: “I modified the cricket bat so it improves the play and contact with the ball.”
  • Dwelling related: “I wanted my washing machine to spin only. I modified it…I bridged one of the circuits and inserted a switch.”
  • Child related: “I colored two halves of a clock dial with different colors, so a child can easily see which side is past the hour and which before the hour. I used it to teach my kids to tell time.”
  • Pet related: “My dog was having trouble eating [because the food bowl kept sliding across the floor]. I used a flat piece of laminated wood and put an edge around it like a tray to stop her bowl from moving around the kitchen.”
  • Medical: “Because I have a spinal problem, I built a nearly diagonal slope for my keyboard. It is very handy for people who cannot look down when they are typing.”

Amazing evidence of the potential we all have to be creative!

Then, the researchers asked the innovators how much money they’d spent on their innovations. The average annual investment was 1,098 pounds; if you multiply by the 2.9 million projected consumer innovators, that’s a total expenditure of 3.2 billion pounds! In contrast, the total corporate R&D spending on consumer products in the UK in 2007 was about 2.2 billion. This means consumers spent more on innovation than the private sector! 

The study also found that very few of these household innovators attempted to patent their creations. In fact, a large number of them freely shared their ideas.

What a fascinating study of the importance of every creativity! It should inspire all of us to find our inner creator, and solve our own everyday problems. Do you have a story of household innovation?

*Eric von Hippel, Jeroen P. J. de Jong, Stephen Flowers (2012). “Comparing business and household sector innovation in consumer products: Findings from a representative study in the United Kingdom.” Management Science, Articles in advance (published online ahead of print), pp. 1-13.

KANEKO: Creativity in Omaha

Tonight, I’m giving the keynote talk at a big event at KANEKO, a creative space in the historic center of Omaha, created by artists Jun and Ree Kaneko. KANEKO is an “Open Space for Your Mind” that aims to foster creativity in the arts, sciences, and philosophy. As one of their brochures puts it,

KANEKO is a new kind of organization–not a museum–not a gallery–not solely a library nor a research center–but a space for minds that nurtures and promotes creativity in the arts, sciences, business, and philosophy…an open space in which creativity and innovation are freely explored.

KANEKO has been responsible for bringing to Omaha thought leaders including Ken Robinson, Nicholas Kristof, and Daniel Levitin, and also creators like Roseanne Cash and Joan Acocella.

It’s a beautiful space, a converted warehouse with a Bow Truss ceiling. My keynote talk is on creativity and collaboration, so it’s really cool that tonight’s event also includes an improvised music performance along with a group creativity activity for the entire audience. Thanks to Executive Director Hal France for making this event happen!

The Art of Business

This week I participated in a fascinating event here in St. Louis, a business creativity conference called “Play @ Work.” In this photo, I’m seated and two of the keynote speakers are with me: Peter Sims at the left (author of Little Bets) and Kevin Carroll (author of Rules of the Red Rubber Ball). The two days were filled with workshops where local executives participated in dance, art, and theater workshops–all designed to foster communication, collaboration, and creativity.

The event was organized and hosted by the Center of Creative Arts (COCA) and their new “COCAbiz” initiative. Kudos to COCA for such a successful event!

U.S. Senate Debates Patent Reform

I probably could have thought up a more exciting title for this blog post! It’s hard to make patent reform sound exciting (apologies to my law colleagues who study intellectual property!). But getting it right is absolutely critical to a country’s innovation.

This past Monday (February 28, 2011) the U.S. Senate began debate on a patent reform bill that would change the patent system from the current “first to invent” system to a “first to file” system. First to file is the way just about every other country does it; what it means is that whoever files the patent first gets the rights. In contrast, First to invent means that filing for the patent first doesn’t guarantee that you’re the owner; someone can challenge your patent by claiming that they actually had the idea first. Then, in a long (and expensive) court trial, that person has to present documentation that proves they had the idea before anybody else.

The basic issues seem to be:

1. First to file is a lot clearer and simpler. No more long legal battles where the court has to pore over lab notebooks and listen to technical arguments about whether this or that sketch is “really” the idea represented in the patent being challenged. Patent disputes would largely disappear from the courts.

2. First to file seems to favor big corporations, who can afford to have patent lawyers on staff who can file patents almost immediately after their researchers come up with something new. The independent inventors can’t file as quickly because they have to find a patent lawyer, bring them up to speed on their technology, etc. And it costs $4,000 to file a patent (although there is a $110 “provisional application” that would still establish priority).

The bill has already been unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and appears to have bipartisan support in both houses of Congress.

So which system will foster greater innovation? In recent decades, the U.S. has been the most innovative country, so defenders of the current system can argue “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But many other countries are also innovative, even with a first to file system. So much of U.S. innovation comes from small startup companies, that I have to admit I’m nervous about shifting to a system that could disadvantage those small startups vis-a-vis the big corporations. The key, for me, is to make sure a first to file system doesn’t end up favoring big corporations at the expense of small entrepreneurial startups.

Europe: Knowledge and Innovation Communities

This article by Mark Dodgson of the University of Queensland describes a major new initiative of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), established by the European Parliament in 2008 “to further policies encouraging innovation in higher education and business in Europe…to compete with the U.S.” Three Knowledge and Innovation Communities, or KICs, have been created with funding of up to 100 million Euros over 15 years. Dodgson describes one of the three KICs:

The KIC researching the future information and communication society, for example, involves leading research groups in London, Berlin, Eindhoven, Helsinki, Paris and Stockholm. The London hub is based in Imperial College with University College as a partner. Its corporate partners include IBM, Hewlett Packard and British Telecom….The work of the KICs encompasses research, education and innovation. The research agenda of the future information society includes the personalisation of digital services in transport, health and cultural heritage and explores the economic and social significance of pervasive computing and virtual prototyping.

This sort of top-down approach to innovation sounds odd to U.S. ears; our own “national innovation system” is much more diffuse and bottom-up. If you look at all of the nationally-guided efforts to innovate an economy, there are not many successes.  Dodgson acknowledges that past European top-down efforts to foster innovation failed; in his opinion, not because top-down innovation is always doomed to fail, but rather due to “parochial political demands from individual nations, and a naive policy belief in collaboration for collaboration’s sake.”

In contrast, the KICs are elitist, with a competitive granting process. And they are creating “new organizational structures encouraging collaboration” and “investing heavily in creating the digital infrastructure for supporting collaborative research.” (I’d link to learn more about exactly what they are doing to foster collaboration, especially virtual collaboration.)

Dodgson then compares the new KICs to an existing Australian national initiative called Co-operative Research Centres or CRCs. He is critical, saying they have not built connections to business, they are not developing educational offerings, and nor are they creating entrepreneurship development programs. All three of these are central to the KICs.

So what makes the U.S. an innovative economy, when we don’t have anything like a national innovation center? A complex question–but ultimately it has to be a bottom-up answer. Rather than guide innovation from the top down, we have created conditions that enable innovation to emerge from the bottom-up. That involves many complex variables: intellectual property law, financial regulations that foster venture capital, tax policies in favor of small business, labor laws that make it easy for start-ups to hire and fire workers, bankruptcy laws that allow a “fresh start”, a corporation structure that creates a strict line between business finances and personal finances of the founders, strong universities to educate the next generation, smooth technology transfer between universities and corporations, government funding for basic research that has no immediate profitable application…wow, this list has gotten really long in just thirty seconds of typing.

So imagine if you’re a national government and you have two choices: (1) make all of the difficult political choices involved in changing all of the variables I just listed; (2) vote to distribute 100 million dollars among your top businesses and universities. Which one sounds political easier?

In closing, Dodgson referred to “The 2008 Cutler review of innovation in Australia” and I’m going to track this report down…stay posted!