The Creative Spark

Here’s a great new book by Agustin Fuentes, The Creative Spark. He starts with a pretty standard claim: that compared to all other animals, including our close primate relatives, creativity is what makes humans special. But what’s new here is that Fuentes says that it’s not just creativity–it’s creativity combined with social collaboration. I make a similar argument in my book, Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration–that collaboration drives all creativity.

Here are some of Fuentes’ statements:

Our humanness can be attributed to our ancestor’s collaborative creativity.

And:

The spark of creativity emerges from the way that our ancestors made social lives and social innovations central.

And:

Science is rooted in deep patterns of human creativity and collaboration.

This is great stuff!

Note: in the quotations I’ve drawn on paraphrases from a book review by David Barash, in the WSJ July 22-23 2017.

 

The One Device: A New Book about the iPhone

Brian Merchant’s new book, The One Device, has gotten a lot of media attention, including this review in the Wall Street Journal. It’s a compelling story–and an exhaustive one; maybe the book has too many details–but if you really really want to know everything about the iPhone, this is the book for you.

In any book about innovation, the first thing that I look for is to see if the author debunks the “lone genius” myths that we’ve heard so many times. According to endless media reports, Steve Jobs is the classic lone genius. He’s a loner, he dropped out of college, he comes up with an inspired vision and insists that everyone follow through, without compromise.

There’s a bit of truth in every myth, I suppose. But basically, the idea that Steve Jobs is a brilliant, visionary, lone genius is exaggerated, if not completely wrong. The details in Merchant’s book debunk the lone genius myth. He provides details about the many people who came up with the small creative insights that made the iPhone happen. Often, these people worked without Job’s involvement, and sometimes without his knowledge.

None of Apple’s three products–the Mac, iPod, and iPhone–were original. (Although they were improvements to what existed at the time.) With the ten-year anniversary of the iPhone, I keep thinking of how everyone’s forgotten about the Palm Pilot. Five years before the iPhone, I was checking my email, surfing the Internet, and downloading and installing apps. When the iPhone came out, my first response was, big deal, what’s so new about this? My second response was, I HATE trying to type words on this f***ing touch screen keyboard. (Ten years later, I still can’t do it. Am I the only person with big thumbs?) But my skepticism of the iPhone turned out to be on the wrong side of history. Everybody else was happy to get rid of the stylus and learn how to make their thumb tips really small.

Merchant describes plenty of dead ends and iterations that weren’t planned but that emerged during the innovation process.

  • Jobs didn’t want the Mac to be compatible with other computers (such as IBM PCs with DOS). Does anyone remember when the Mac had its own word processor and spreadsheet programs?
  • In 1985, Apple offered to license their operating system to clone makers, just like Microsoft licensed its PC-DOS operating system. Apple failed, Microsoft won, and now, every computer runs Microsoft Windows.
  • The iPod struggled in the market, until Jobs was persuaded to make it compatible with Windows computers.
  • The iPhone didn’t take off until Jobs finally agreed to open the app store to non-Apple products.

And furthermore, as Dan Gallagher writes in the Wall Street Journal, Apple thought that the iPhone would primarily be used as a phone. (As in, making and receiving voice calls…remember those?)

Yes, Steve Jobs was a strong and stubborn individual who was committed to his ideas. That fits our cultural myths about the lone genius. But the most stereotypically genius of his ideas (stubbornly sticking with your vision) were usually the most wrong. What made Apple, and the iPhone, successful was that its innovation continued down an iterative, wandering path, and that Apple brought together great people into creative teams.

Patent Trolls: Good Riddance

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced a decision that might be the most important for innovation than anything else that happens this year. They ruled unanimously that patent trolls can’t file lawsuits anywhere they want. For years, anybody with a patent, that wanted to file a frivolous lawsuit against a big corporation, would take them to court in the Eastern District of Texas. Why? Because the judges there were perceived as more friendly to these “patent trolls” than anywhere else in the U.S.

About 40 percent of patent cases last year were filed in the tiny town of Marshall, Texas, which has only 25,000 residents. An amicus brief in the lawsuit said about Texas that “local practices and rules depart from national norms in ways attractive for incentivizing settlement for less than the cost of litigating the early stages of patent cases.” What that means is that the big companies often settle out of court, essentially paying extortion fees to the patent troll, simply to avoid the expense of defending themselves in Eastern Texas, knowing that the courts there usually side with the plaintiff. It’s called “venue shopping.” And with this decision, it stops.

Patent trolls block collaboration and innovation. Take a look at why, in my book Group Genius.

GROUP GENIUS: New and Improved!

A new version of the book Group Genius has just been published! I’ve updated every chapter and page, and I’ve written a new chapter on how social media drives collaborative creativity.

Group Genius, first published in 2007, showed that creativity is always collaborative–even when you’re alone. Back in 2007, it was pretty radical to claim that collaboration drives innovation. The accepted wisdom was that brilliant people came up with creative ideas all by themselves. Business leaders competed to hire the most creative professionals—offering free lunch, day care, and ping pong tables. They were convinced that they needed special geniuses to generate innovation. Most creativity advice books told people how to come up with better ideas.

Now, ten years later, the evidence for the creative power of collaboration is overwhelming. In 2015, a majority of executives say more collaboration leads to greater profits. In 2016, the Harvard Business Review reported that employee collaboration time was way up in the last two decades—from 50 percent to as much as 80 percent. In 2016, the New York Times wrote that “teams are now the fundamental unit of organization.” Today everyone agrees that collaboration is the key to innovation.

But there’s a problem: It turns out that it’s hard to collaborate successfully. Brainstorming is a good example: Numerous studies have shown that this popular technique is usually a waste of time. There’s so much ineffective collaboration and bad teamwork that there’s been a backlash. Susan Cain’s bestseller Quiet argues that when people spend time alone, they’re more effective, more creative, and more successful. She calls the increasing emphasis on teamwork “The New Groupthink.” The truth is that, despite the proliferation of advice in the business press, many companies don’t know how to foster creative collaboration.

Here’s where the research comes in. My research has shown that only certain kinds of collaboration work in the real world—improvisations that are guided and planned, but in a way that doesn’t kill the power of improvisation to generate unexpected insights. Fortunately, today’s research tells us how. For example, I show that improvised innovation is more likely to work when a group experiences group flow—the group equivalent of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s famous “flow” state, when we perform at our peak and lose track of time. Most teams never experience group flow; knowing the research will help you attain this peak experience. And I show how to build brainstorming groups that realize their full creative potential.

Today’s Internet tools make collaboration easier than ever: Slack, Google Plus+, WebEx, Basecamp…the list grows longer every month. Critical business functions have migrated into the cloud, allowing everyone to work together more efficiently and access the same data. Social media like Facebook, Instagram, Vine, and Pinterest expand our social networks and bring us together in groups that include millions. More than ever before, we need to understand how to harness these tools to foster creative collaboration.

While doing research for this second edition, I bought so many books about collaboration that I had to buy another bookshelf. Just last month, another book about collaboration appeared, with almost exactly the same argument: The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. But while reading these books, I discovered that some of the most exciting research on group creativity goes unnoticed. That’s why I’ve written this second edition—to share the surprising insights of the science of collaboration. In this new edition, I bring together research on face-to-face collaboration, everyday conversation, and even jazz, theater, and basketball teams, as well as the latest science of Internet-based collaboration. This research shows how we can use social media and business productivity apps to bring us together in ways that build on our deeply human need for collaboration.

Take a look at the new book: http://www.groupgenius.net

To Be Creative, Read a Lot

You’ll be more creative if you fill your mind with a variety of information. It helps you make those distant combinations that lead to bigger and more surprising creative ideas.

So I loved reading this new article in Science Magazine, by Julian West, a doctoral student in organic chemistry at Princeton. I’ve excerpted the passages that resonated with me.

I aggressively curate and monitor the notifications I receive about newly published papers, and I read those that strike my interest, even if they’re not directly related to my research. Perhaps the biggest question is why I make the effort. The short answer is that I read widely to prepare myself for whatever might come along in the lab. My biggest fear is the one that got away, the important discovery that I missed because I couldn’t see it for what it was.

Reading only in my subdiscipline would limit the kinds of connections I can draw.

Time and again, strange observations in the lab reminded me of a paper I had read in some far-out journal, or a seemingly irrelevant visiting speaker’s talk suddenly led me to understand a result that had been bugging me for weeks.

My advice: Read widely and voraciously.

One of the key lessons is that it’s not easy. It takes time and effort. It’s easier to stay focused on one thing, to work on what everyone else is working on, to read all of the same articles that your colleagues are reading. But creativity? You’ve got to work at that, to do things your colleagues aren’t.

Fast Company: 50 Most Innovative Companies

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

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

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

FYI the number one most innovative company is Amazon.

Bumblebees Can Learn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s their conclusion:

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

What Happens Next? (The Problem with Plot)

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

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

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

And Silver writes this about plots in novels:

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

Creativity Keynote at Rice University

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

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

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

Match These Taglines With The Right Company

I’ve been watching the Weather Channel every morning with my son, Graham. A while back, I started writing down the taglines from the advertisements. The tagline is the catchy slogan that comes at the end of the commercial, after the company name. I started to notice that many taglines could work for lots of different companies. It’s not always easy to match the tagline with the right company! Try to match the number with the right letter:

  1. “Together all the way”
  2. “I can do this”
  3. “To help life go right”
  4. “What’s in your wallet”
  5. “Fine products made to last”
  6. “Show more of you”
  7. “Ready for the workday”
  8. “Experience an original”
  9. “Get yours”
  10. “Be good at life”
  • A. Cintas
  • B. Met Life
  • C. Otesla (a drug)
  • D. Cigna
  • E. State Farm
  • F. L. L. Bean
  • G. CNBC
  • H. Capital One
  • I. The Mattress Store
  • J. Met Life (yes, Met Life has two taglines on the list)

And here’s a creativity exercise for today: Create a tagline for you, that captures your personal brand.

Answers: 1D, 2J, 3E, 4H, 5F, 6C, 7A, 8I, 9G, 10B