Is It Tougher To Come Up With Ideas When You Work Alone? (A Few More Thoughts on Creativity & Innovation)
America seems to be suffering a decline in innovation advantage.
America seems to be experiencing an increase in the number of people who work alone.
Is it possible that these are connected?
I have read a lot of books on innovation. And a few on creativity. (Bob Morris, our blogging colleague, is good at reminding us of the difference between the two). And I think about these subjects, creativity and innovation, a lot.
And, right now, on my reading list is the new book The Idea Factory, about the Bell Labs, and the new book by Jonah Lehrer, Imagine. (Imagine is getting a lot of buzz, and I will present my synopsis of this book at the May First Friday Book Synopsis).
So, here’s my latest thought about our innovation deficit. A lot of us are in a deficit position. Why? Because we work primarily alone.
I am an independent consultant. Though Karl Krayer and I have hosted the First Friday Book Synopsis together for fourteen full years, we spend little actual time together. We each office separately. And though I work with other folks in a few different ways, I do most of my thinking and pondering alone. My “coffee breaks” lead to little business interaction. And yet, all of the new research seems to say a lot about the enormous value of the forced and not-so-forced interactions in idea factories of one kind or another. Being together, rubbing elbows together, just talking in “unscheduled” run-ins, can lead to breakthrough thinking.
Why? Here’s a quote from Imagine, which Bob Morris quoted in his review of the book:
“Sometimes a creative problem is so difficult that it requires people to connect their imaginations together; the answer arrives only if we collaborate. That’s because a group is not just a collection of individual talents. Instead, it is a chance for those talents to exceed themselves, to produce something greater than anyone thought possible.”
And don’t forget — “together” actually does require some time “together.”
The Bell Laboratories provide an example of a true idea factory. So too with Pixar, and Apple, and other entities that profit from smart and creative people being together. And it is the sum of all of these many interactions, constantly occurring, that leads to breakthrough ideas.
And, yet, so many more people now work in “alone” settings. The very people that, if they had more interactions, might produce more great ideas.
I “interact” virtually. I read widely. But I’m not sure it is the same as the company cafeteria and ping pong tables and simple coffee breaks…
What do we do about this? I’m not sure. But I think this is a problem worth our attention.
After having read and reviewed so many business books, I now share brief comments about what I consider to be the 25 most valuable business insights and the books in which they are either introduced or (one man’s opinion) best explained. Here are the third five:
11. Leadership: In essence, leaders attract followers so that together they can achieve shared objectives, guided and informed by shared values based on mutual trust and respect. History’s greatest leaders are remembered for a heritage, usually based on great achievements that had an enduring impact. Alexander and then Julius Caesar for establishing or extending a great empire and Lincoln for preserving union despite a civil war.
The same is true of great business leaders such as Albert Sloan, Thomas Watson Sr. and Jr., and Steve Jobs. They could not have succeeded, had they not attracted sufficient followers who embraced both a dream and great challenges. Today, no organization can survive – much less thrive – without effective leadership at all levels and in all areas. Seth Godin said it well: “Initiative is taken, not given.”
Best Sources: Warren Bennis’ On Becoming a Leader, James O’Toole’s The Executive’s Compass: Business and the Good Society, Bill George’s True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership co-authored with Peter Sims, and William C. Taylor’s Practically Radical: Not-So-Crazy Ways to Transform Your Company, Shake Up Your Industry, and Challenge Yourself
12. Management: In essence, managers organize and then complete tasks and among their most important tasks is supervising others. The most efficient managers do that most efficiently, with highly-developed emotional intelligence. I’ve always believed that managers help keep the promises that leaders make. With all due respect to compelling visions, someone has to take out the garbage, milk the cows, and turn off the lights. I agree with Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”
Best Sources: Henry Mintzberg’s Management? It Isn’t What You Think!, Peter F. Drucker’s The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done, and Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done co-authored by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan
13. Marketing: Create or increase demand for a customer-focused, multi-sensory experience that pro0mises a unique, enjoyable, and fulfilling experience. Initially, a “market” was a specific location; later, it was viewed as a specific segment of sellers/buyers (e.g. housing) and then as a cluster of demographics (e.g. males ages 29-45); later, marketing was defined as a brand, then a promise, and now an experience that creates “customer evangelists.”
Best Sources: Theodore Levitt’s The Marketing Imagination and Philip Kotler’s Kotler on Marketing.
14. Mergers & Acquisitions: Mergers are (usually) blended consolidations of two previously independent entities whereas acquisitions (usually) involve one entity being absorbed and then controlled by another. A majority of M&As fail or fall far short of expectations and the reasons vary but usually include irreconcilable cultural differences (e.g. values, silos, and turf issues).
Best Sources: Steve Steinhilber’s Strategic Alliances: Three Ways to Make Them Work (Memo to the CEO) and The Complete Guide to Mergers and Acquisitions: Process Tools to Support M&A Integration at Every Level co-authored by Timothy J. Galpin Mark Herndon
15. “Open” Mindset: This mindset is well-named because those who develop it are literally “open” (i.e. receptive to and respectful of) whatever possibilities they may encounter. They constantly ask “Why?” and “Why not?” They consider, compare/contrast, and integrate sometimes contradictory information but also opinions, assertions, theories, etc. The metaphor I use to describe this mindset is that it opens doors and windows and sheds light on whatever has possible relevance and value. The singe most significant, indeed defining characteristic of an open mindset is insatiable curiosity.
Best Sources: Henry Chesbrough’s Open Business Models: How to Thrive in the New Innovation Landscape, Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating And Profiting from Technology, and Open Services Innovation: Rethinking Your Business to Grow and Compete in a New Era as well as Roger Martin’s The Opposable Mind: Winning Trough Integratuve Thinking, and Morten T. Hansen’s Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results
Collaborators aren’t born, they’re made. Or, to be more precise, built, one day at a time, through practice, through attention, through discipline, through passion and commitment – and, most of all, through habit… Like creativity, collaboration is a habit – and one I encourage you to develop.
Collaboration guarantees change because it makes us accommodate the reality of our partners – and accept all the ways they’re not like us. And those differences are important. The more we can draw upon our partner’s strengths and avoid approving our partner’s weaknesses, the better the partnership will be.
You need a challenging partner. In a good collaboration, differences between partners mean that one plus one will always equal more than two.
Twyla Tharp, The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together
With God, there are no little people.
Here’s a snippet of a scene from Sports Night, Aaron Sorkin’s first television series (Sorkin won the Academy Award for adapted screenplay last night for The Social Network. You can read the script of this Sports Night episode, The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee, here). Casey McCall, one of the two fictional Sports Night co-hosts, had appeared on The View in the episode. A big deal had been made about the color of his tie by the women on The View. Monica (played by Janel Moloney) came to see him…
MONICA, A VERY SWEET 25-YEAR-OLD, APPEARS AT THE DOOR.
SHE’S HOLDING SEVERAL DRESS SHIRTS OVER ONE ARM AND SEVERAL NECKTIES OVER THE OTHER. IT WOULD APPEAR THAT SHE’S HAD TO SUMMON MOST OF HER COURAGE FOR THIS MOMENT.
Excuse me, Mr. McCall?
CASEY TURNS OFF THE TV.
I’m sorry, is this a bad time?
I’d like to ask you a question, but if you’re preparing the show, if this is a bad time, I can come back.
What’s your question?
What’s my name?
(BEAT) What’s your name?
What are we doing right now?
If this is a bad time –
I’m sorry, I’m not very good at remembering names.
Who was the number two man on the Boston Red Sox staff in 1977?
It was Ferguson Jenkins.
My name’s Monica. I’m the assistant wardrobe supervisor for Sports Night as well as two other shows here at CSC. I think you hurt the feelings of the woman I work for. Her name is Maureen and she’s been working here since the day you started.
I know Maureen.
Can I ask you another question?
I’m sorry I didn’t know your name.
(HOLDING UP A NECKTIE) Do you know what color this is?
It’s called gun metal. Grey has more ivory in it, gun metal has more blue. Can you tell me which of these shirts you should wear it with?
I don’t know.
You’re not supposed to know what shirt goes with what suit or how a color in a necktie can pick up your eyes. You’re not expected to know what’s going to clash with what Dan’s wearing or what pattern’s gonna bleed when Dave changes the lighting. Mr. McCall, you get so much attention and so much praise for what you actually do, and all of it’s deserved. When you go on a talk-show and get complimented on something you didn’t, how hard would it be to say “That’s not me. That’s a woman named Maureen who’s been working for us since the first day. It’s Maureen who dresses me every night, and without Maureen, I wouldn’t know gun metal from a hole in the ground.” Do you have an idea what it would’ve meant to her? Do you have any idea how many times she would’ve played that tape for her husband and her kids?
Let’s start with the obvious. The Academy Awards gives out Oscars for a number of different categories – all of which point to the obvious truth there is no such thing as a good movie that is not a team project – a true collaborative product. It takes a lot of people working together, with great and diverse skills, to make an Oscar-worthy movie. So there is no best actor, best director, best actress, without a really good cinematographer, or screen writer, or make-up artist, or, composer, or…you get the idea. And the Oscar telecast is filled with such reminders, as every winner thanks people who helped him or her win this coveted award.
But, within each category there is excellence all the way down to the smallest behind-the-scenes bit-part. And it was this truth that Natalie Portman so eloquently stated. Even though one winner (Randy Newman) reminded the audience that reading off a list of names is “not good television,” Portman’s list reminded us that people — real people, behind every name in such a list of “thank-yous” — are the reason a movie is made well to begin with.
Ms. Portman thanked many people, but near the end of her acceptance speech, she added this (from transcript, here):
And also there are people on films who no one ever talks about that are your heart and soul every day. Margie and Geordie who did my hair and makeup, Nicci, who dressed me, and Kate and Laura Mulleavy, who designed the beautiful ballet costumes, Joe Reidy, our incredible AD, first AD, and our camera operators J.C. and Steve who gave me so much soul behind the camera everyday, you gave me all of your energy.
Here is the business lesson (and yes, movies are big business). It takes a team — a diverse team, made up of people with a life-time of carefully honed skills (the 10,000 hour rule!) to make a world-class movie. Collaboration, with gifted, skilled, trained, people, at every level of the organization, produces excellence – even magic. And shoddiness, anywhere on the team, can lower the quality all the way through the endeavor.
And for every leader (or, those with “leading roles”), take a lesson from Natalie Portman. Don’t forget to include, and thank, the “little people.”
Business , and life, is all about “together” rather than “alone.” As we start 2011, here is a brief excerpt (from Sullivan’s Daily Dish) of a great, great article by Peggy Noonan on the classic “Auld Lang Syne.” I encourage you to read all of Noonan’s article, and think about connections, collaborations, “interdependency,” in business, and in life.
“Auld Lang Syne”—the phrase can be translated as “long, long ago,” or “old long since,” but I like “old times past”—is a song that asks a question, a tender little question that has to do with the nature of being alive, of being a person on a journey in the world. It not only asks, it gives an answer.
It was written, or written down, by Robert Burns, lyric poet and Bard of Scotland. In 1788 he sent a copy of the poem to the Scots Musical Museum, with the words: “The following song, an old song, of the olden times, has never been in print.” Burns was interested in the culture of Scotland, and collected old folk tales and poems. He said he got this one “from an old man”—no one knows who—and wrote it down. Being a writer, Burns revised and compressed. He found the phrase auld lang syne “exceedingly expressive” and thought whoever first wrote the poem “heaven inspired.” The song spread throughout Scotland, where it was sung to mark the end of the old year, and soon to the English-speaking world, where it’s sung to mark the new.
The question it asks is clear: Should those we knew and loved be forgotten and never thought of? Should old times past be forgotten? No, says the song, they shouldn’t be. We’ll remember those times and those people, we’ll toast them now and always, we’ll keep them close. “We’ll take a cup of kindness yet.”
To a successful, effective, fulfilling 2011 for us all!
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!
Nothing portentous or polite;
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!
(A Comedy Tonight, from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
It may not take long to make a really big difference.
A consultant who is the right consultant is worth everything.
Collaboration really does matter.
These are my thoughts as I think of the opening story in the book The Collaborative Habit by Twyla Tharp. The year was 1962. If you know Broadway at all, you know the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. When it was in its pre-Broadway run, it was not going well. The audiences were not warming up to the play. They had a sure-fire disaster on their hands.
So Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince (Let me say that again: Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince had a disaster on their hands – that ought to tell us something!) called in a consultant. Admittedly, this was a world-class consultant: Jerome Robbins. He had just won his Oscar for West Side Story, and was a legend in every sense of the word. Here is Tharp’s account:
No one was laughing. Not Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics. Not veteran director George Abbott. Certainly not producer Hal Prince and the play’s backers. And, most important of all, not the audience. (They were) fleeing the theater.
When a show has script trouble, it’s common for the producers to bring in a “play doctor.” In business, he’d be called a consultant. I’d call him a collaborator – someone who works with others to solve a problem.
Jerome Robbins watched a performance – and by intermission, not only had he analyzed the problem, he had a solution. Jerome Robbins offered simple, commonsense advice: “It’s a comedy. Tell them that.”
Sondheim quickly wrote an opening number called “Comedy Tonight” – “Something convulsive,/Something repulsive/Something for everyone: a comedy tonight!” – and once ticket buyers knew what they were supposed to do, they laughed. The New York reviews were cheers for an “uninhibited romp.”
The rest, as they say, is history. 954 performances, a hit movie followed. In other words, a consultation/collaboration that was a complete success.
Here is the lesson. “We are smarter than me.” Find the right “we.” Listen to advice – and implement solutions quickly.
And never think you know enough without the wisdom of others. If Stephen Sondheim needed help, there’s a good chance you will too.
“You’re already self employed. When are you going to start acting like it?”
Themes. Clusters. After 12+ years of presenting synopses and briefings of business books, I clearly see that there are patterns, themes, clusters of books dealing with similar problems and pointing us in similar directions. Here is one really obvious, and important such theme.
We need to learn to collaborate – or perish.
• Because “I” don’t know enough – “we are smarter than any “me”
• Because the problems may be really, really big
• Because the knowledge obtained through collaboration will make your decisions/actions better
• Because the knowledge is more available than anyone could have ever imagined…
This phrase (collaborate – or perish) is a direct quote from Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams. Here’s the more complete quote:
Peer production is a very social activity. All one needs is a computer, a network connection, and a bright spark of initiative and creativity to join in the economy.
These changes are ushering us toward a world where knowledge, power, and productive capability will be more dispersed than at any time in our history – a world where value creation will be fast, fluid, and persistently disruptive. A world where only the connected will survive. A power shift is underway, and a tough new business rule is emerging: Harness the new collaboration or perish. Those who fail to grasp this will find themselves ever more isolated – cut off from the networks that are sharing, adapting, and updating knowledge to create value.
We must collaborate or perish – across borders, cultures, disciplines, and firms, and increasingly with masses of people at one time.
The principle: we all have to work “together” to build the future. And even though we each work in a specific job, or in a specific company, the growing reality is that we are free agents. For an increasing number of people each year, we have no idea where we will be working, for whom we will be working, this time next year. Job security is a thing of the past.
So collaboration is needed for two reasons: to succeed at any and every task we tackle, because “we” are smarter than “me” – and, to build that network of connections that we will all need, probably over and over again, to find and open that next work and life opportunity.
With whom shall we all collaborate? Recognize that anyone and everyone (from anywhere and everywhere) can be a collaboration partner. Thus we need to practice generalized reciprocity – “pay it forward;” “be generous.”
And in this collaborative era, we collaborate because it helps people, and it is the “right” thing to do. We do not collaborate to “get credit.” In fact, we don’t care who gets the credit — we share the credit, freely and generously. The result is what matters.
It truly is the collaborative era.
Collaboration is the buzzword of this new millennium. For some of us, it’s a superior way of working; for almost all of us, it’s inevitable.
I’ve just finished reading The Collaborative Habit by Twyla Tharp. (I’m presenting a synopsis of this book at Take Your Brain to Lunch, this week in Dallas). It is a good book. Not as good as her earlier book, The Creative Habit – one of my all-time favorite books. But still, a good book. And it is an absolutely wonderful collection of stories.
She tells, throughout the book, of her collaborations with dancers, company directors, and artists from Frank Sinatra to Billy Joel to Mikhail Baryshnikov… But there are plenty of non-dance stories sprinkled through the book. Her premise is simple, and concurs with the overall wisdom from books such as The Wisdom of Crowds and Wikinomics. Here it is:
We are greater than me.
And, as fads and approaches and changes come and go, and get refined, and are jettisoned, there is a deep need to focus on the wisdom and the efforts of us over the wisdom and effort of me. In other words, collaboration is not a fad – it is a lasting necessity.
Here are a couple of quotes:
We are a culture that consumes and discards in almost one motion. Just think of the bright ideas for more efficient and humane ways of working that have come and gone in the last few decades…
Reality’s tutorials can be harsh. You can run your life “my way,” struggling alone, or “our way,” struggling to make a group effort work.
Here’s a simple question, asked in different ways:
Do you play well with others?
Are you a good, effective, team player?
Do you collaborate well?
If the answer is no, it’s time to learn! Collaboration is the name of the new game in town, and those who don’t learn to do this well will get left behind.
On Tuesday [February 9, 2010], President Obama strode into the White House Briefing Room, surprising the reporters there. He had just held the first of a new string of meetings — a bipartisan gathering involving congressional leaders from both parties (the big one, on health care, is set for February 25). This is a good effort, but it comes a year late. Obama came into office promising to end the politics of division. A year later, it seems we have more division and less collaboration.
It’s a lesson in how not to collaborate, and it applies equally to business leaders. All leaders and managers can learn from five key mistakes made by the White House:
[Note: Here is the first. You can read the complete article by visiting email@example.com.]
1. Wrong language by the rank-and-file. President Obama says many of the right things about the need for bipartisanship and collaboration. But his team does not follow suit. Rahm Emanuel, most notably, is often making news with heated rhetoric, most recently when he called people with whom he disagreed “F—ing retarded” (and they were Democrats!). As I argue in my book Collaboration, how leaders talk matter a great deal. In a fascinating experiment at Stanford University, students played a game where they chose to cooperate or compete. When it was called “the community game,” given the impression that it was about cooperation, 70 percent chose to cooperate. When it was called “the Wall Street game,” suggesting market competition, 70 percent chose to compete — the exact opposite! Rhetoric shapes behaviors.
To get people motivated to collaborate, you need to talk the language of collaboration, all the time. And you can’t extol it one day and then say something differently another day. The White House can learn from the example of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California who came into office calling his opponents “girlie men.” That rhetoric led to even more division, but once he cooled the rhetoric, he was able to get a lot done by collaborating.
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Had President Obama and his team avoided these five missteps and practiced the five corresponding good collaborative practices, things may have looked differently today. But there is still time to practice good collaboration, for all of us.
Examine your own organization: do you have compelling unifying goals that unite people from different units? As a leader, do you set a tone that invites collaboration? Do you foster real debate early in the process, reach out to those who disagree, and stay hands-on in major initiatives? And — when the process stalls — have you been willing to make hard choices?
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To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Daily Alerts, please visit firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Morten T. Hansen is the author of Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results. He is a management professor at University of California, Berkeley, School of Information.
innovation + experimentation + collaboration can lead to a successful tomorrow – wisdom from Atul Gawande (from the current health care debate)
If there are any definites in this very indefinite and chaotic era, here is one: change is constant, and to get to what works successfully tomorrow requires a lot of innovation and experimentation and collaboration to make it to that successful tomorrow.
Recently, Atul Gawande — surgeon/professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School/international expert and leader on surgical processes/journalist for the New Yorker/MacArthur Fellow (the “Genius Grant”) – wrote about the Senate health care bill that just passed. Many have complained that it really only offers pilot programs to try out in hopes of fixing the problems. This is what he writes:
Where we crave sweeping transformation, however, all the current bill offers is those pilot programs, a battery of small-scale experiments. The strategy seems hopelessly inadequate to solve a problem of this magnitude. And yet—here’s the interesting thing—history suggests otherwise.
In the article, he speaks glowingly and factually about the great success story of the government provided “extension agents,” who work tirelessly to help our farmers increase their productivity. Their work is a textbook example of innovation and experimentation and collaboration. They try all sorts of new ideas, in many pilot programs, and they are always calling each other asking for advice on what will solve their specific local challenges.
The article tells the history of this long-running and ongoing and successful government program (officially the U.S.D.A. Cooperative Extension Service). The first agent was called an “Agricultural Explorer.” How’s that for a title?! Gawande includes this provocative paragraph:
Cynicism about government can seem ingrained in the American character. It was, ironically, in a speech to the Future Farmers of America that President Ronald Reagan said, “The ten most dangerous words in the English language are ‘Hi, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’ ” Well, Lewandowski (a current extension agent based in Athens, Ohio) is from the government, and he’s here to help. And small farms in Athens County are surviving because of him. What he does involves continual improvisation and education; problems keep changing, and better methods of managing them keep emerging—as in medicine. (emphasis added).
Though the article is about the health care crisis, and the encouraging lessons to be learned from the government extension agents, the formula is clear, and provides quite a successful business model: innovation + experimentation + collaboration can lead to a successful tomorrow.
(Check out Gawande’s web site to read some of his earlier articles. He is a terrific writer).