Montessori, Collaboration, and Creativity

WP_20150214_003I had a great time giving this morning’s keynote at the annual Montessori teacher’s conference (NAMTA). They invited me to talk about how to foster creativity and collaboration in high school classrooms.

In my keynote, I gave an overview of the core lessons from my creativity research, combined with my learning sciences research:

  • Creative learning is active
  • Creative learning is collaborative
  • Creative learning engages with projects in real-world contexts
  • Creative learning is artfully guided and structured by the teacher and the designed learning environment

Then, I gave some practical advice for how to make this happen by overcoming challenges faced when you try to do this in any school environment. I provided a few case studies of learning environments that are doing creative education very well (like the San Francisco Exploratorium).

One of the things I always associate with Montessori is the distinctive custom-designed manipulatives, most of them created by Dr. Maria Montessori herself. So I had fun browsing the vendor displays, where you can buy famous things like the pink tower (it’s at the left).WP_20150214_002

 

 

 

 

My message resonated loud and clear with the audience of Montessori educators. Many of them came up to my afterwards and said “You really helped me understand better what we need to do when we use Montessori methods to teach adolescents.” My latest book, Zig Zag, sold well at the book signing after my talk. I hope the creativity techniques in the book will give teachers ideas for how to help their students be more creative!WP_20150214_004

Create Collaboration With The Right Incentives

I just read some fascinating research by Marshall W. Van Alstyne in Harvard Business Review. The figure below shows a network of high collaboration on the left, and a network of much lower collaboration on the right. The explanation turns out to be simple: it’s caused by two very different incentive systems. Alstyne found that “the people rewarded for individual performance shared information least; the people rewarded for team performance shared more; and the people rewarded for company performance shared most.” In the figure, each connecting line indicates email traffic between two people. Thicker lines correspond to a greater volume of email. As Alstyne explains it, the reasons are pretty simple: it reflects each person’s self interest, aligning with the different incentive systems. If your compensation is linked to the performance of everyone else, then you benefit from sharing and helping others. If your compensation is linked to your own performance, relative to others, then you’re likely to “hoard” information to maximize your own performance (and to undermine that of others).

This aligns with my own study of W. L. Gore, as I wrote about in my book Group Genius. At Gore, everyone at the company receives the same profit sharing percentage; no one gets profit sharing directly from their own projects and successes. When I asked CEO Terry Kelly why, she said it’s because it encourages a culture of collaboration. She said, “at Gore, you can pick up the phone and call anyone in the company to ask for help, and they will take that call.” And imagine the alternative: with individual rewards, why would you take a phone call from someone in a different division, who you’ve never met? It’s just going to slow you down in your progress on your own work.

 

 

The Social Networks of Emily Dickinson, Paul Gauguin, and Charlotte Bronte

I just read a fascinating article* by Professor Katherine Giuffre, of Colorado College, that asks the question: Do social networks contribute to creativity? Previous research is pretty compelling: social networks and collaboration contribute to greater creativity. But as Giuffre points out, no one has compared creative and non-creative periods during the lifetime of a single person. As she puts it:

Over the course of a person’s lifetime, there are some moments of creativity and other periods where that same person is not as creative. If we then trace the pattern of social relations over the course of a lifetime, comparing periods of much creative production with periods of no or very little creative production, we have a way of examining the correlation between a person’s social relations and his or her creative output. (p. 824)

Emily Dickinson, Paul Gauguin, and Charlotte Bronte were legendary loners, famous for seeking out solitude, far from the cafes and parlors of the big cities. So why were these three creators chosen? Basically, if you could show that even these famous loners benefited from collaboration, you could put the nail in the coffin of the “lone genius” hypothesis:

Given the contention that creativity is the product not of lonely recluses locked away in their garrets, but of individuals enmeshed in social structures, the most compelling cases to examine will be those of precisely the loneliest of recluses because they are the cases most unfavorable to the hypothesis.

So here’s what she did with these three famous creators: She compared their level of correspondence during creative and non-creative periods. For all three of these famous recluses, their letters provide an unusually accurate representation of their social networks, because they all lived and worked primarily alone and rarely had face-to-face creative encounters.

Past research suggests that creativity would increase when (1) a person’s social network is dense, but not so dense that everyone thinks the same; (2) a person has easy access to a diverse range of other people; (3) a person is linked into many different types of groups. And here’s what she found.

During periods of high creativity, the density of their social network is about .475, higher than during uncreative periods–meaning that the creator’s social network draws together and interacts more frequently. In other words, more collaboration is associated with greater creativity.

She concludes:

It was not when the artists were alone…that they were most creative, but when they were attached to others in a more moderate way and when those others were close to each other, although, again, not so close as to form one cohesive group. (p. 836)

When Giuffre actually read the content of the letters, she found ample confirmation of creative interaction: “The artists actively solicited support and critical feedback for their endeavors from others in their networks” (p. 838).

The bottom line: These famous loners were not as isolated as the myths would have it. Communication, collaboration, and social networks contribute to creativity. 

*Giuffre, Katherine. (2010). Half the right people: Network density and creativity. Culture Unbound, 2: 819-846.

Does Solitude Enhance Creativity? A Critique of Susan Cain’s Attack on Collaboration

I’ve just read a New York Times article by Susan Cain, author of the forthcoming book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It’s the frustrated cry of a true introvert. Cain is clearly tired of everyone touting the benefits of collaboration; some people, herself included, just want to be left alone. And, she argues, those are the people who really come up with all of the great ideas.

There’s a grain of truth to Cain’s claim: Psychologists who study creativity know that it requires both solitude and collaboration. Exceptional creativity involves a lot of hard work, and that often happens in solitude. But Cain misses the big picture: Researchers have found that breakthrough ideas are largely due to exchange and interaction, and that’s because breakthrough ideas always involve combinations of very different ideas. (Matt Ridley famously calls it “ideas having sex.”)

In 2007, my book Group Genius was partly responsible for what Susan Cain calls dismissively “the rise of the new groupthink.” So I feel like I’ve been called out to respond. Yes, solitude plays a role in the creative process, but Cain overstates her case and misrepresents some of the research. Here are five specific examples of misleading or incorrect statements in her article:

1. Cain says that research by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that exceptional creators are more likely to be introverted. Csikszentmihalyi was my graduate advisor, so I know that what his research actually found is that “Creative people tend to be both extroverted and introverted….[they] exhibit both traits simultaneously.” Reviewing all of the studies of creativity and extroversion using the “five-factor” personality model, most studies don’t show any relation between creativity and either introversion or extraversion. A few studies show a small relation, and for those, it’s always a positive relation between creativity and extraversion. (see my book Explaining Creativity for the details.)

2. Cain argues that Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple with Steve Jobs, is a classic introvert and he’s the one who actually invented the Apple personal computer. She grants that Wozniak never would have had the idea if he hadn’t been exchanging ideas with the Homebrew Computer Club, and he knows that Wozniak’s computer never would have been built and sold if it weren’t for his collaboration with Steve Jobs. It’s true that Wozniak had to go home and build the thing alone…but the real creativity came from collaboration.

And the Macintosh computer–which was a much more innovative product, with the graphic user interface that the one we still use today–resulted from Steve Jobs’ networking and idea exchange with Xerox PARC, the lab where the windows-and-mouse technology was first demonstrated. No solitude story there.

3. Cain is critical of the new trend of using collaborative groups in school classrooms. But in the New York Times article, she doesn’t give any reasons to dislike this, and doesn’t cite any research on the topic (maybe she will in the forthcoming book). Collaboration and learning is one of my research topics, so I know that there’s a huge volume of evidence–going back three decades–showing that collaborative interaction enhances learning. Of course, it has to be done in the right way, and no doubt there are teachers who form student groups in ineffective ways, but you can’t base an argument on a few ineffective teachers.

Regarding learning and mastery, Cain cites Anders Ericsson’s expertise research correctly; that research shows it takes 10,000 hours of mostly solitary practice to become an expert. And I too have argued that this is a prerequisite to a creative life. But that’s not where new ideas come from; that’s just the base of knowledge you need before you’re able to play the game, to combine great ideas and to recognize good ideas.

4. Cain argues that the “Coding War Games” study shows that solitary computer programmers perform better than programmers that don’t get any privacy. But I’ve done studies of pair programming–a core technique of the popular approach known as “extreme coding”–and the research convincingly demonstrates that pair programming results in better computer programs.

5. Cain is absolutely right about the research showing that brainstorming groups generate fewer ideas than the same number of solitary people working alone. But there’s an important exception to this research: if the problems are complex, or if they are visual or spatial, then groups usually outperform solo workers. And in most real-world organizations, problems are pretty complex–not the simple word-generation tasks used in brainstorming experiments.

Cain has read a broad range of important research, and she gets some things right. And she’s smart enough to realize that the more defensible position is that you need both solitude and collaboration. But in her desire to elevate the role of solitude, Cain’s article misrepresents the research. And the research has found just the opposite: collaboration is the key to creativity.

There must be a lot of introverts out there, because when I looked at her book on Amazon.com today, it’s one of the top 100 best selling books. Cain’s book will no doubt appeal to those readers who enjoy solitary work, who’ve sat in endless time-wasting meetings, who did a group project in high school with a bunch of slackers…come to think of it, that pretty much describes everyone, including me! But don’t let yourself be misled by your own bad experiences with groups. The science of creativity shows that exceptional, successful creativity depends on groups, networks, and conversation. If you hole up alone at home, I guarantee you will be less creative.

Cirque du Soleil

The process of choreography is surprisingly collaborative and improvisational, and Cirque du Soleil is the perfect example, as demonstrated by a recent interview with Circus Choreographer Debra Brown in the Wall Street Journal*:

When she’s creating a new act, Ms. Brown begins by leading the acrobats in improvisation sessions to see what they can do. Often, new tricks emerge. Routines can come together in as little as a week, or take as long as a month or two to finalize. Shows often evolve after they hit the stage. After a show debuts, the creative team reconvenes to edit numbers and adjust the tricks and choreography. “Improvisation is part of our blood,” Ms. Brown said.

My own research has demonstrated the important element of improvisation in every successful creative collaboration.

Uncertainty plays a big role in Ms. Brown’s creative process. Some of the most impressive stunts in a Cirque show come from unscripted moments in rehearsal.

In a forthcoming book that I edited, Structure and improvisation in creative teaching, my colleague Janice Fournier analyzes interviews she did with professional choreographers, and they all report a similarly collaborative and improvisational process. Dr. Fournier uses their example to draw conclusions about how teachers can teach more effectively, if they build collaborative improvisation into the classroom.

*Alexander Alter, “Cirque du Soleil’s Stunt Woman in Chief,” Wall Street Journal, March 12-13 2011, p. C11.

Collaboration at Cisco

I enjoyed the interview with John T. Chambers, CEO of Cisco, in Sunday’s New York Times (Business section page 2, by Adam Bryant).

When Bryant asked “How has your leadership style evolved over time?” Chambers said this:

I’m a command-and-control person. I like being able to say turn right, and we truly have 67,000 people turn right. But that’s the style of the past. Today’s world requires a different leadership style–more collaboration and teamwork, including using Web 2.0 technologies.

And the final answer echoed this theme too: When asked “What’s changed in the last few years?” Chambers responded:

Big time, the importance of collaboration. Big time, people who have teamwork skills, and their use of technology. If they’re not collaborative, if they aren’t naturally inclined toward collaboration and teamwork…they’re probably not going to fit in here.

Teamwork, the True Mother of Invention

Today’s New York Times (December 7, 2008) has a wonderful article by business columnist Janet Rae-Dupree, with this title (in the print edition, Business section, page 3; the online version has a different title).  She starts by quoting what I told her in a recent interview:

Innovation today isn’t a sudden break with the past, a brilliant insight that one lone outsider pushes through to save the company.  Just the opposite: innovation today is a continuous process of small and constant change, and it’s built into the culture of successful companies.

Of course, I was delighted to be quoted in the article, but what makes it a great read is that she ties my research in the hands-on experience of many other executives; as she points out about the above quotation, “it’s a perspective shared broadly in corporate America.”  She quotes a lot of sources you’ve already read about if you follow my blog: for example, Ed Catmull, president of Pixar, writing about collective creativity in September’s Harvard Business Review.  She quotes Drew Boyd, a Cincinnati businessman, describing the brainstorming research that I discuss in my book Group Genius–showing that brainstorming is so often used ineffectively.  She talks about how Einstein’s “lone genius” image has been exaggerated, citing Hans Ohanian’s book Einstein’s Mistakes (see my blog entry on that here).

And she closes with an example I didn’t know about: the Innovation Learning Network formed by a dozen health care systems, to exchange innovative ideas.  Kaiser Permanente came up with their KP MedRite program as a result of their participation in this network: the goal of KP MedRite is to make sure nurses aren’t interrupted while they’re dispensing medications.  The director of the network, Chris McCarthy, concludes that “the group effort allows us to move much more quickly and become successful much faster.”