I spent this week thinking about creative genius. It started when I spent most of last weekend ignoring my projects and chores and finishing a great novel that was so well imagined, it took my breath away.* There’s nothing like a stunning story, an inspiring piece of music, an insightful article, or a genuinely original idea to make you stop to wonder: How do they think this stuff up?
Fortuitously, I was also reading a book called Group Genius by Keith Sawyer. Based on wide-ranging research and case studies, Sawyer explains that – contrary to popular belief – genius does not come from the lone gifted thinker or artist; it comes from many sparks of genius adding up over time. These sparks come from many sources, including the variety of odd analogies that the “genius” is able to make in his or her own mind, as well as the web of people the “genius” encounters, all sharing their own creative ideas.
Sawyer describes a collaborative creative process that has five stages:
> Preparation – an important period of thinking about a problem or issue, working on it, and most importantly, discussing it with others
> Time off – the “incubation” period where the deep recesses of the mind continue to turn the problem over, looking for new connections and analogies that might apply
> The spark – that moment when something clicks into place – and that something is usually built from sparks that others have had
> Selection – deciding which sparks to follow through, collaborating with others to analyze and evaluate the ideas
> Elaboration – Stoking the spark into a fire – adding additional ideas (often from others), collaborating on an innovative solution
A number of things struck me when I was reading Sawyer’s book. He says that a creative mind needs a lot of analogies to flourish, so having a lot of interests (or being connected to people with varying interests) really helps to fuel the creative process. I’ve always thanked my lucky stars for a strong liberal arts education, and now I know why I find it so valuable. To facilitate creativity, we often need to look outside the constraints of the subject at hand and find solutions and innovation in seemingly unrelated realms. In addition to stretching our own minds beyond one small area of expertise, it’s critical that we stretch our network of contacts as well. Big ideas and nifty inventions do not come from one brilliant mind or even a few brilliant minds working in isolation – they come from small changes adding up over time – combining and twisting others’ ideas to meet new challenges well beyond their original targeted realm. That explanation of creativity rings true to me – we often find inspiration within ideas that seem far off the mark – and some of our best creations cannot be attributed to one person with a great idea; they came from many people building on one another’s ideas.
Of course, this has implications in terms of how we manage a creative endeavor like instructional design or learning strategy development. We need to continue to expand the ways that we can collaborate – creating common spaces in which to meet, devising online forums to share results, inserting creative collaboration sessions in a rapid design and development process. It doesn’t help to try to specialize creativity or innovation – the best ideas come from differing perspectives and gathering together of smaller ideas. We have to talk to one another, share our stories and our insights, and ask for contributions from our colleagues if we are to have the best chance of attaining a “genius” solution.
The concept of the additive genius of “sparks” and collaboration is also underpinning the Pixar creative process that I wrote about before as well as ideas about innovation and integration published in the November issue of the Harvard Business Review. In Teaming up to Crack Innovation and Enterprise Integration, Cash, Earl, and Morison suggest the establishment of a distributed innovation group, arguing that innovation is not limited to a centralized R&D department, but is inherently distributed – not only across the organization, but outside of the organization as well. They would charge a distributed innovation group with scouting for ideas, networking with the best minds in the company and in the external environment, and promoting activities that generate ideas and problem-solving. I think Keith Sawyer would approve.
These ideas are really resonating with me at this point in time as we begin to shift the “best practice” research work in our organization to a more distributed model. (We currently have a small Best Practices department that does research on trends and industry practices for our strategic initiatives, among other things.) We need to have more minds working on the challenges we face because each one brings a perspective that will open up new possibilities for solutions. Each one thinks a little bit differently, has a different web of connections, keeps a different set of interests top of mind. Those kinds of rich connections will be what lead to the innovative solutions we need to move the organization forward. The truth is, there is genius everywhere in our organization, and we’re not doing enough to take advantage of it. We need to connect to the genius within and take advantage of the genius outside of our organization by linking to other professionals through the web and through our professional connections. Web 2.0 technology is a gift beyond measure in this endeavor. We no longer have to face challenges within a small circle of colleagues – we can reach out to experts in other organizations, industries, and practice areas. As Sawyer says: “Our success in solving the most critical problems and needs that we face, today and in the future, depends on our ability to tap into the creative power of collaboration” (p. 219).
The TV show “Numbers” features a mathematical wiz who helps his FBI-agent brother solve complicated crimes. When Charlie (the math wiz) gets a flash of insight, the producers always show a series of quick graphics meant to hint at how Charlie has connected the dots to come to his stunningly brilliant conclusions. Viewers might also note that the insights are almost always triggered by an offhand comment and then explained with a seemingly off-the-wall analogy. Turns out, that’s how the mind works.
So how do they think this stuff up? Turns out, they don’t. WE do.
Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration by Keith Sawyer (2007) Basic Books
Teaming up to Crack Innovaion and Enterprise Integration by James I. Cash, Jr., Michael J. Earl, and Robert Morison. Harvard Business Review, November 2008
* The book I read last weekend was Brandon Sanderson’s The Hero of Ages. If you are a fan of fantasy, the Mistborn trilogy (of which this is the last book) is an AMAZING piece of work. And on point to this post, read more on Brandon’s blog about the process he’s lived to develop his skill as a writer. Small sparks and collaboration contribute to this genius as well.