The Emergence of Creativity: Matt Ridley’s New Book

You’ve got to read the excerpt from Matt Ridley’s new book in today’s Wall Street Journal. Just released this week, his book is called The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge. I have a lot of respect for his previous books, so I’m delighted to learn that his new book makes the same points as my 2007 book Group Genius.

Here are the key features of innovation, described in both of our books:

  • The stories we hear about genius inventors, like Thomas Edison inventing the light bulb, are always myths. Ridley and I both describe the real history of the light bulb, which involves lots of people way before Edison. (Group Genius, pages 110, 196)
  • “Innovation emerges from the bottom up,” I write in Group Genius  (page 16). I show that innovation emerges from self-organizing systems, and this is Ridley’s main point, too.
  • Ridley writes that innovation is “incremental” rather than “revolutionary.” That’s why I called one of my chapters “Small Sparks”: to emphasize that innovation doesn’t come from a big flash of insight. “Successful creators know how to keep their sparks coming in a process that unfolds over time” (Group Genius, page 97).
  • Ridley describes the historical research on multiple discovery, as I do on pages 192-193, with this example: “In the 1920s, numerous teams invented television in parallel.”
  • Ridley argues that patent protection is too broad and is based on the mythical view of the lone inventor. I make the same point on pages 176-224, especially pages 221-225: “Current policy favors linear, centralized innovation and blocks the natural rhythm of innovation”.
  • Ridley demolishes the idea that innovation comes from a linear process; this is the most important point of Group Genius  (for example, pages 158-159, “Beyond Linear Innovation”)

Ridley’s WSJ  excerpt is filled with great stories of real innovations. I come to the same conclusions, with some of the same historical examples, and also by drawing on the science of creativity. Inspired by my studies of jazz and improv theater, I think of creativity as improvisation. Group Genius argues that the most creative improvisations are non-linear, emergent, unpredictable, and inefficient. Ridley has a bit more to say about the political and economic implications of this new, more realistic, understanding of innovation (for example, he concludes that government doesn’t need to fund scientific research). I have a bit more to say about how you can use this research to become more successfully creative, both on your own and in teams. It’s cool that Ridley and I come to the same conclusions from really different directions. If you like Group Genius, you really should check out The Evolution of Everything. (I’ll post a review after I’ve read the whole book.)



The Costumed Character “Buford Beaver”

For my summer job while in high school, in 1977 I passed a stage audition at the Busch Gardens theme park, in Williamsburg Virginia, to perform as the costumed character “Buford Beaver.” Just today, I found a long-lost photo that shows me, in costume, with my mother and grandmother, check it out!

Keith Sawyer performing as Buford Beaver 1977I stumbled onto this job by accident. I originally auditioned to be a pianist in one of the theme park’s many stage shows. I didn’t get the gig, but somehow they thought I might make a good costumed character, so they invited me back for that audition. I was on stage with about 40 people who were hoping for the job, and the directors put us through a series of non-verbal improvisational exercises. We did group improv, and then we each did a solo improv. For mine, I was asked to improvise being a piece of bread, going into a toaster, popping up out of the toaster, and then being spread with butter and jelly. I had no experience with acting or improvising, and I’d never been on stage before, but I was too far along to say no. So I went all out!

When unexpected zigs and zags come your way, embrace them and own it!

Great Improv One-Liners

I’m fascinating by improvisational theater, and I’ve spent my career studying Chicago improv, the world headquarters for innovative improvisation.

While studying for my PhD at the University of Chicago, I played piano for two years for the campus improv group, Off-Off Campus. It sounds like just another campus activity, but improv theater was invented at the University of  Chicago in the 1950s, and several of the actors I played with are now successful writers and actors. We sold out three shows every weekend, and by that I mean every show had 100 people in the audience. Compared with all the bands I’ve played in, this group had the biggest audiences.

From the University of Chicago alumni magazine, here are the top ten most funny/striking/odd one-liners that were spoken on stage, by Off-Off Campus actors, during the 2011-2012 season:

1. “I came into a Papa John’s, not Judgment John’s.”

2. “Mission Accomplished 2: Mission Still Accomplished.”

3. “Chattanooga: The Big Apple.”

4. “It is so hard to find someone who appreciates literature in a beach town.”

5. “I have an underdeveloped story arc because I’m an African American character in an early ’90s movie!”

6. “What do you think happened to Chad? Or Other Dave?”

7. “I am relieved that you have declined the cotton candy. For me it only reminds me of a dream I once had of God.”

8. “Where do you sit at a Rosa Parks convention?” (this one is my personal favorite)

9. “I’m sure ZZ Top would understand.”

10. “Trains are a metaphor for trains.”

* Benjamin Recchie, “Laugh Lines”, “The Core” magazine Winter 2013 page 4.

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.

Applied Improvisation

I just returned from giving a keynote at the Applied Improvisation Network conference, in Chicago–the legendary world headquarters for improv theater.  This is a fascinating and fund group of performers and teachers.  I was delighted to discover that improv has gone international–lots of folks from Europe, Asia, and Australia had flown in for the event.

It’s an unusual experience to be surrounded by people who are experts in making YOU look good (one of the hallmarks of an experienced improviser).  You let your guard down and relax.

In my keynote, I talked about how I was the designer of the FoodFight videogame home cartridge for the Atari 7800.  At the evening banquet later that night, five actors created a skit and improvised characters from the videogame (including the chefs and the ice cream cone).  I was invited up to play the role of the main character, Charlie Chuck…and yes, I made it to the ice cream cone!

The speaker that night was Mick Napier, founder and director of Chicago’s legendary Annoyance Theatre (and also an active director at Second City).  He was phenomenal, and provided honest and profound insights into acting, directing, and the Chicago scene.

Call one of these folks if you’re looking to make your organization more collaborative, more trusting, or to enhance communication skills throughout a group.

Professional improvisers

I’ve just returned from presenting a keynote address at a conference at the University of Padua, in Padua, Italy: the title of the conference was “Improvisation: Between Technique and Spontaneity.”  The core idea of the conference was that the tension between technique and spontaneity is found in just about all expert and professional activity.  Professionals are “experts” because they’ve mastered a large set of routines and “cookbook” solutions to problems.  But that, alone, isn’t enough.  To be a master, you have to be able to improvisationally respond to the unexpected, to weave new cloth out of known solutions and routines.

Jazz musicians know this better than just about everyone.  To play jazz at a high level requires years of hard work and practice.  It’s a myth that jazz improvisation means “anything goes”–the technique, the routines, the shared cultural norms and communication practices are what allow the genius of the group to exceed the brilliance of any one individual.  That’s why the Padua conference had a strong jazz emphasis.  And, unusual for an academic conference, it was collaboratively organized by three different departments: education, philosophy, and linguistic, communication, and performing arts (I know, that last department name is a mouthful!)

In my talk, I described how experienced teachers also blend technique and spontaneity in the classroom.  I cited research that has discovered that experienced teachers improvise more than novice teachers; but, paradoxically, they also have mastered more standard routines than novice teachers.  Professional expertise, like jazz improvisation, requires both mastery of standard solutions and routines as well as improvisational ability.

Other highlights of the conference included talks by Andy Hamilton (a philosopher at Durham University), Tord Gustavsen (an internationally known jazz pianist and now a doctoral student at Oslo University), and Frank Barrett (at the business school at the Naval Postgraduate University).  And later that night, the Tord Gustavsen trio performed to a sold-out crowd of 600 people in the beautiful Auditorium Pollini.

Thanks to Marina Santi, the lead organizer, for this wonderful event!

Innovation = Learning

Innovation is the flavor of the month; has been for more than a few months now.  Organizational learning is another management trend–it refers to the ability of an organization to learn–to become more effective over time, to develop new knowledge and retain it to respond to future situations.  What both innovation and learning have in common is adaptability and improvisationality.

In an article in the Fall 2007 issue of Sloan Management Review, Joaquín Alegre and Ricardo Chiva studied organizations high in organizational learning capability (OLC) and identified five core features of high OLC companies: experimentation, risk taking, interaction with the external environment, dialogue and participative decision making.  This is fascinating because in my research, I’ve found that these five characteristics also hold true of organizations that use the power of collaboration to generate innovation.

(1) Experimentation, as defined by these authors, produces a flow of new ideas that challenge the established order.  (2) Risk taking is just what it sounds like: the tolerance for ambiguity and errors.  And as I’ve found, innovative organizations foster idea generation and tolerate failure.

(3) Interaction with the external environment is what I call “collaborating with customers” and is associated with innovative networks that I call collaborative webs in my book Group Genius.  Deborah Ancona, in her 2007 book X-Teams, has likewise discovered that successful teams have an outward focus, and strong social network ties with people outside of their team.

(4) Dialogue and (5) participative decision making are what I call improvisation–a style of communication and an organizational culture that is egalitarian, open to flows across status levels.  Improvisational organizations excel at a type of dialogue that opens up possibilities, a style of conversation in which new and unexpected ideas emerge.

I firmly believe that organizations high in learning ability are more likely to be innovative organizations, and I’m delighted to read of this fascinating study confirming the link.

Improvised Innovation

I’ve just been reading a new book by William Duggan, a professor who teaches business strategy at Columbia Business School. The book, Strategic Intuition, argues that the best innovation comes through improvisation, not through advance planning. It’s called “opportunistic innovation”: instead of planning and setting advance goals, sit back and watch for opportunities. When you spot a chance for a big payoff for a low investment, then set your goals and go for it. Duggan provides a wealth of historical examples, showing that each breakthrough innovation resulted from this kind of improvisational responsiveness.

This is fascinating because it’s exactly the opposite of the conventional wisdom that you find in business advice books (or even college commencement speeches): set big goals, then do what it takes to reach them. Bill Gates’s Harvard commencement speech in 2007 told students to do exactly this.

One interesting implication of Duggan’s book is that although businesses innovate opportunistically, governments and international agencies always try the “set big goals first” strategy. Of course, the voters demand solutions to specific problems, and it’s the job of governments to respond. But then, they end up rigidly pursuing the fixed goals, and the bureaucracy prevents them from responding improvisationally to new opportunities.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Duggan tells the story of how Muhammed Yunus developed microcredit (small loans to individual businesses at low interest rates). He started out by trying to relieve poverty in Bangladesh by increasing crop yields. And while he was doing his part to contribute to the Green Revolution of the 1970s, he noticed that landless women were making hand crafted items, but making almost no money because to purchase the materials, they were forced to use local lenders who charged outrageous fees like ten percent each day.

We need a lot fewer big goals and grand plans, and more leaders who are capable of responding improvisationally.

A quotation I just found:

“The real accomplishment of modern science and technology comes in taking ordinary men, informing them narrowly and deeply and then, through appropriate organization, arranging to have their knowledge combined with that of other specialized but equally ordinary men. This dispenses with the need for genius.”

By John Kenneth Galbraith, Harvard economist and advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, in his 1967 book The New Industrial State (pp. 60-61).