Yesterday’s New York Times offered fascinating piece that struck directly at the the heart of a topic I write about often: the connection of creativity and collaboration. Regularly here I write with enthusiasm that by promoting better collaboration among our students in a myriad of ways– from group-work in the classroom to building powerful online networks across the world– we will facilitate our students in becoming more creative and innovative.
I cite Steven Johnson’s writing most often, as when he explains in Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation that the most innovative spaces are situated at the scientific laboratory conference table and innovation occurs most often in the densest of networks: first in cities (and his research is compelling that the densest and largest cities are the most innovative) and now in online networks, most exemplified by Twitter. Clayton Christensen too, in the Innovators’ DNA, elevates five traits as essential to the “Innovator’s DNA,” and networking is number 4.
At first glance, the New York Times piece by Susan Cain, The Rise of the New Groupthink, with its subtitle “Collaboration is in. But it may not be conducive to creativity” appears to be a major assault of sorts on my belief and argument. But a closer reading of the piece leads me to believe that the headline distorts: to my eyes, this piece is a nuanced and balanced essay which argues for the value of both solitude and collaborative/networks as offering value for innovative work, except when it goes off its own rails to strike an unfairly strident and wrong-headed note.
Cain opens with an admiration for the introverts who are often highly creative and for the value of solitude in creative endeavors, and speaking for myself as an introvert, I appreciate the endorsement:
The most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.
One explanation for these findings is that introverts are comfortable working alone — and solitude is a catalyst to innovation. As the influential psychologist Hans Eysenck observed, introversion fosters creativity by “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.” In other words, a person sitting quietly under a tree in the backyard, while everyone else is clinking glasses on the patio, is more likely to have an apple land on his head.
But even in these opening lines, Cain undercuts any extreme positioning for her argument in acknowledging that these creative minds are ” extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas.”
The example then offered next, Steve Wozniak, brilliantly exposes the way creativity and innovation thrive when introverts immerse themselves in collaborative networks, withdraw to contemplate, tinker, and ideate in solitude, and then return to the public sphere to share.
Most focus on Mr. Jobs’s supernatural magnetism and tend to ignore the other crucial figure in Apple’s creation: a kindly, introverted engineering wizard, Steve Wozniak, who toiled alone on a beloved invention, the personal computer.
Rewind to March 1975: Mr. Wozniak believes the world would be a better place if everyone had a user-friendly computer. This seems a distant dream — most computers are still the size of minivans, and many times as pricey. But Mr. Wozniak meets a simpatico band of engineers that call themselves the Homebrew Computer Club. The Homebrewers are excited about a primitive new machine called the Altair 8800.
Mr. Wozniak is inspired, and immediately begins work on his own magical version of a computer. Three months later, he unveils his amazing creation for his friend, Steve Jobs. Mr. Wozniak wants to give his invention away free, but Mr. Jobs persuades him to co-found Apple Computer.
The story of Apple’s origin speaks to the power of collaboration. Mr. Wozniak wouldn’t have been catalyzed by the Altair but for the kindred spirits of Homebrew. And he’d never have started Apple without Mr. Jobs.
Disturbingly, Cain writes with a wish to have it both ways. She wants us to understand that innovation is “catalyzed” by collaborative networks as Steven Johnson and Clayton Christensen so compellingly explain, and then she contradicts her own balanced position to try to make a contradictory more extreme argument, in this next paragraph:
If you look at how Mr. Wozniak got the work done — the sheer hard work of creating something from nothing — he did it alone. Late at night, all by himself.Intentionally so. In his memoir, Mr. Wozniak offers this guidance to aspiring inventors:
“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”
No. Cain can’t have it both ways. Woz is welcome to argue that inventors work alone– god knows he has earned the right to voice an opinion on such matters– but Cain can’t tell us with a straight face that Woz was inspired by his computer club and then that he accomplished what he did “all by himself.”
I have no intention of arguing for the opposite extreme. She is perfectly right to point out that collaboration can be too much, that some workplaces don’t allow for the privacy or concentration that many of us benefit from. It is absurd to me also that
In one fourth-grade classroom I visited in New York City, students engaged in group work were forbidden to ask a question unless every member of the group had the very same question.
Her discussion of the value of brainstorming is more complex than she makes it. Simply put, there is brainstorming and there is brainstorming: the term covers a wide terrain, and some of it offers enormous value and some of it doesn’t. Johnson’s book shares a myriad of studies and examples, most notably by Dunbar, of the way in which innovation emerges in the interactions of people working on projects, but that doesn’t mean that every “brainstorming” session is productive.
She is right of course that the following dynamics can inihibit:
People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure.
But these are far from the only behavioral patterns that happen when organizations and networks facilitate sharing, idea cross fertilizing, and collaboration.
Steven Johnson inspired me most in his book when he touted the value of Twitter, and other social media/online communication networks, as being enormously enhancing of innovation– and he did so because I have had such a profound personal experience of this very phenomenon.
So it is gratifying to read Cain write that:
The one important exception to this dismal record is electronic brainstorming, where large groups outperform individuals; and the larger the group the better. The protection of the screen mitigates many problems of group work. This is why the Internet has yielded such wondrous collective creations. Marcel Proust called reading a “miracle of communication in the midst of solitude,” and that’s what the Internet is, too. It’s a place where we can be alone together — and this is precisely what gives it power.
I believe this so profoundly, and am enormously appreciative of this: the internet is an incredibly empowering place “where we can be alone together.”
Happily, Cain wraps up her fascinating essay by advocating the centrist position that I so strongly embrace and endorse, (a centrist position that she, in her headline, subtitle, and at certain points in her essay sought to rebut).
To harness the energy that fuels both these drives, we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning. Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone. Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time. And we must recognize that introverts like Steve Wozniak need extra quiet and privacy to do their best work.
Sadly, she feels the need to undercut this balanced and centrist philosophy by what I think is just a nasty aside in her very last words. Returning to Woz, she tells us of how he enjoyed sharing donuts twice a day with his HP colleagues, and benefiting from (yes, greatly so) this kind of generative collaborative network, without which, we know from so much evidence and so much research (Johnson, Dunbar, Christensen), innovation simply doesn’t occur, after which “he disappeared into his cubicle to get the real work done.”
No, no, no. The accomplishments were not the result of only the isolated concentration: the real work was situated in the dialectic of both networked collaboration AND focused solitude.