It Takes Two in the Innovation Tango

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.

    • nice piece Gregg…

      Keith Swayer (Group Creativity author) also wrote an opposing piece to Susan Cain’s article in his ezine/blog. So did I both on FB and in one of my blogs.

      If you want a piece supporting Cain’s points in QUIET, you may want to look at Michael Hewitt-Gleeson’s piece praising the article in his School of Thinking ezine from Australia (he is a self-proclaimend co-creator (pun) of Six Hats of Thinking with Edward de Bono

    • Just read the Keith Swayer piece, very well stated:

      Hewitt-Gleeson’s piece is less about the article and more about her book. I get the sense the book makes some good points, but as I say, it’s not about the individual OR the group, it’s about the individual AND the group.

      Thanks as always for your comment Alan.

    • Greg,

      I think it was a timely article, reminding those of us that are more spending our time working along to gt out more and find ways to collaborate and for those that spend their lives in meetings, or in teams to find the individual time as it allows for different thinking.

      We all need both I feel, but the fact that perhaps one is pushed more than the other needs to be ‘aired’ and Susan Cain helped prompt this reflection we all need to find our personal balance

    • Nicely articulate piece that I wouldn’t have found if not for the interactivity and collaborative support that Twitter provides.
      Intoverts need external forces to help them get past their quiet contemplative and very rich thoughtful interior spaces. Sharing with each other can be satisfying but near as satisfying as seeing ti ripple into a much bigger space. Thanks for helping draw the attention to the dance that includes polarity management as well as the match-up of diverse personality and sensibilities that are necessary if not critical to the release of innovative ideas.

      • Thanks for your comment Rachel. Yes, Twitter is such a great way to expose content. I’m personally an extrovert, but always write alone. I think we should all remember that personality measures like introvert/extrovert are preferences, but don’t always reflect actual behavior. Some very famous performers are introverts, for example.

    • tim

      Well said Gregg! Thanks for honoring both sides of the coin. Susan prescribes to the definition of brainstorming that says its any group trying to come up with ideas. To me it’s not brainstorming if you don’t follow the guidelines.



    • Thanks for throwing in on the great debate, Gregg. Clearly (as we innovationistas regularly insist), this isn’t about either/or but both/and. While I respect Cain’s representing the introverts, it actually does introverts a disservice if they take her piece too literally. There’s room for all of us here, including the amazing contributions that I have seen from so many introverts, not the least of whom is our friend Susan Robertson!

      • I respect Cain as well, and facilitators in particular would be well advised to make part of any given group experience a quiet, solitary, time. Too often brainstorming sessions are dominated by activities that are extrovert friendly but are painful poison to introverts.

    • cynthia

      Hello Gregg,
      Perhaps a mixture of both would be ideal for creativiy? Some brainstorming, then a period of quiet!

      • Yes, Cynthia, AND a period where members of a team work alone, followed on by a group process.

    • Kai

      Thanks, Gregg, for this response!Also thank you for replying my note on Facebook about research literature supporting brainstorming. This NYTimes article actually has quite some insights. What bothers me more is a New Yorker article which claims that “Brainstorming does not work”.
      I don’t know why people can make such unsupported claim and these claims get popular.

    • ‘Well put; I had the same reaction reading the “Groupthink” piece – well-written and good points, but one-sided. We usually think of “integrity” as moral behavior, but it also represents the ability to harmonize different perspectives or approaches. You are right: we need more folks capable of thinking in terms of “both / and” to solve problems and contribute value by leveraging differences. It’s too bad there are so few politicians (note that I didn’t use the term “public servants”) with that capacity.

    • To Kai’s point, Jonah Lehrer’s story, GroupThink, in the New Yorker made the point in favor of group work and collaboration, but pointed out that the process of “brainstorming” as invented and popularized by the “O” of ad agency behemoth BBDO was less effective at spawning creativity than some other techniques that matched solitary efforts with innovative spaces giving people opportunities to mix and mingle with others in open, informal and often cross-disciplinary areas. He cites the example of a legendary MIT building from WWII where radar was developed that then became an academic space for everything from the science club to the home of the Linguistics dept where Noam Chomsky got the juice for his revolutionary ideas on the roots for human language and grammar being universal. There was only one bathroom for the entire building so everyone had to cross paths regularly. That’s a different kind of innovation. So, yes, both/and – plus spaces that force an intermingling of ideas…like the Internet and blogs!

      • Thanks for your comment Robin, Yes, it’s a BOTH AND. Since we last met I’ve spent a great deal of time studying and learning “brainstorming” as it was originally defined by the late Alex Osborn (yes, of BBDO). I actually know his daughter Marnie and his grandson, and participated for many years (and still do) in the annual CPSI (Creative Problem Solving Institute) conference which Alex started in 1953 in Buffalo. CPSI is a legendary training institute in the creativity field, and a large number of corporate facilitators and innovators got their original training there.

        Alex actually coined the term brainstorming in his book Applied Imagination, and defined how it should be done. There is a fairly sizable body of research work done by highly credible academics and practitioners that build on Alex’s basic framework. Sid Parnes, PhD first and foremost, but also Gerard Puccio, Roger Firestein, Scott Isaksen, Moe Stein, and others have all contributed to improving Osborn’s model into a highly structured, sophisticated, yet amazingly flexible system.

        The basics of the “CPS” (aka Osborn-Parnes model) are fairly simple: a.) separate divergence from convergence, b.) go for quantity, c.) have a trained facilitator who enforces the guidelines, and d.) training participants in the basic guidelines. Osborn would also have a focused challenge question. When this structure for brainstorming is used, it is undeniably more effective than solitary work, and this has been proven time and again. And, skilled facilitators have always mixed tools and techniques within this model to accommodate solitary thinking and introverted participants. I know many practitioners who as a standard practice, myself included, insist that participants do personal work before a “live” session as a way of balancing group and singular work.

        Many of the recent articles saying that “brainstorming doesn’t work” rely on the studies of another group of academics who ignored Osborn’s basic guidelines and set up their own experiments comparing group work to solitary work. These studies generally found that groups didn’t do as well as individuals working alone. But those of us who are aware of the guidelines Osborn set up, and the extensive research that supports it, would say that what they were testing wasn’t brainstorming at all. Call it unstructured idea generation with no guidance — that’s what it is! It drives those of us who have this background a bit nuts to see these headlines. As in many things, it’s all in how you define it…

        Physical space is an interesting factor in group productivity and I tend to agree with Lehrer on that point. Pixar set up their offices with the same philosophy as the MIT building, and it clearly works.

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