Thank God for Susan Robertson.
Susan is a friend and colleague, and a principal at the innovation firm Ideas To Go. I’m happy Susan took the time to respond to yet another article in a respected publication that downplays the value of collaboration in idea generation. I’ve written several pieces in this blogspace defending the value of well executed brainstorming, for once, somebody else wrote a rebuttal — and I’m so glad, thank you Susan!
I can’t resist adding an additional two cents.
The article, “The Rise of the New Groupthink” appeared in the New York Times Sunday Review — impressive eh? Author Susan Cain is a good writer — her piece flows like a hawk gliding on an updraft. And I have to admit, she makes a good point in that the value of solitude in creativity is indeed quite valuable. She cites valid research to support her thinking. However, the soaring bird loses altitude with its over-empahsis on one mode of creation.
I do resonate with the tendency in our culture (western culture) to over-emphasize group work. Personally, I’m quite sick of meetings where there is any kind of debate or discussion. Time winds on and the debate never seems to go anywhere, and discussions rarely generate ideas. I’m looking forward to reading Cain’s about to be released book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I would also agree with Ms. Cain that the role of the introvert is under-rated, and, introverts usually get the short end of the attention stick in extrovert dominated group sessions.
And, it’s not about group versus solitude, they both have benefits in a creative process. It’s not either group or single creation, it’s BOTH. Ms. Cain, check out a concept called Polarity Management. Group versus solitary work is not a problem to be solved, it’s a polarity to be managed.
Cain’s article features the case study of Steve Wozniak, the less-then-heralded founder of Apple, he’s ‘the other Steve’. She’s quite right in stating that Woz essentially developed the first Apple Computer alone. But Cain misses the point — without the collaboration of Steve Jobs, who shaped the final product in clever and important ways, Apple would still be a couple of geeks going to the HomeBrew Computer Club.
In other words, it takes two to dance the innovation tango.
It’s the difference between creativity — which Woz had in ample supply, and innovation, which the collaboration enabled. Both solitary work and collaborative work were what turned a great piece of solitary invention into a groundbreaking marketable product.
Cain also writes about the value of working alone from an office space perspective, citing the ineffectivenss of open space plans. Again, it’s not about private offices versus open space, it’s a mix that works best, not one or the other. See Pixar for an organization that got this totally right — open space in the center, private offices around the edges. Pixar is doing okay right?
So, I’ll leave it at that. If you want to see a more thorough point for point dissection of the Cain piece, read Susan Robertson’s NYT Groupthink Rebuttal: Effective Brainstorming Works.