We Never Think Alone

Here’s a wonderful new book, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. The authors, professors Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman, argue that it’s “a misunderstanding of knowledge” to think that “it goes on between our ears.”

What really sets human beings apart is not our individual mental capacity. The secret to our success is our ability to jointly pursue complex goals by dividing cognitive labor. All of our world-altering innovations were made possible by this ability. Each of us knows only a little bit, but together we can achieve remarkable feats. Knowledge isn’t in my head or in your head. It’s shared.

I love it! I made the same point in my book Group Genius: creativity isn’t really about what’s going on inside your head. Of course, each person’s mind plays a key role in innovation; but creativity is always social, even when you’re alone. Lots of us have good ideas when we’re alone, but we can only have those ideas because of previous conversations, interactions, and encounters–with other people, with other ideas, participating in social networks.

Check out Fernbach’s and Sloman’s book The Knowledge Illusion!

The quotations above are from a NYTimes article by Fernbach and Sloman.

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.

What Will We Do After AI Takes Our Jobs?

Christopher Mims predicts that artificial intelligence will increasingly put white collar, professional workers out of work. That means people who blog. 🙂 Muriel Clauson, of Singularity University, says “Education is often touted as the answer to the skills gap, but it is generally a blunt instrument.” She recommends this system:

First, break down every job into the smallest tasks. Then, figure out which of those tasks can be automated. The jobs that include those tasks are the ones at risk.

Second, assess what skills each person has, and compare those skills with the tasks, across all of the jobs, that can’t be automated. That would give you a pretty good idea of how to match up people with the remaining jobs. Each person would probably be missing a few of the tasks for any given job, so this “task mapping” assessment system would tell you how to design universities and other educational organizations.

I’ve always been nervous about designing education based on what jobs currently exist. It’s because today’s jobs are always going away, or transforming, and new jobs are emerging all the time. Those new jobs often involve new “tasks” that wouldn’t show up using any system based on today’s jobs. So the real challenge faced by education reformers, and education researchers like myself, is: What are the deeper, higher level skills that apply broadly across a wide range of tasks? Those are the skills that make you adaptable, ready to grow and change with the economy.

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.

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

Are You Too Old to Be Brilliant?

When are brilliant scientists the most brilliant? What age are you likely to be when the Nobel committee comes calling? Pick one of the following answers:

  • You need a lot of expertise and wisdom to make a big breakthrough. You need professional connections, lots of research money, and big laboratories. Scientific breakthroughs come from people in middle age, or maybe even at the end of their careers.
  • It’s the young upstarts who have lots of energy and fresh ideas. After all, the old scientists are stuck in ideas from the past. They’re already past their prime. They’re tired and don’t have much energy any more. Am I talking about myself at the ripe old age of 56? I didn’t get much sleep last night, and my knees are kind of sore 🙂

A new study gives us the answer: None of the above. There’s no relationship between age and creative scientific contribution. The authors of the study analyzed 2,856 physicists, working from 1893 to the present. They found that the best predictor of exceptional creativity is productivity. It’s lots of hard work. The scientists who do the most experiments, and test the most hypotheses, are the ones with the big contributions. The researchers found that once they’d controlled for productivity, age doesn’t add any additional predictive power.

The researchers identified a second variable that’s related to scientific impact: They called it Q, and it includes intelligence, motivation, openness to ideas, ability to write well. Another surprise: The variable Q doesn’t change over your career. (Otherwise, you’d be back to the theory that age predicts creativity.)

It’s still true that younger scientists are more likely to make a significant contribution. But it’s not because a person has more brilliant insights in your 20s, and it’s not because their ideas are fresh and unbound by old-fashioned tradition. It’s because they work harder and that’s why they’re more productive. So if you’re older, there’s still hope.

Now if only I could get a good night’s sleep.