My blogs are often triggered by synchronicity, catching sight of similar articles, often about relatively obscure subjects. This time it was two separate articles about “groupthink,” published about two weeks apart. The [first]( was in the New York Times Sunday Review section, by Susan Cain, author of forthcoming book on the topic. The other was in January 30, 2012 issue of The New Yorker (needs a subscription to read), written by Jonah Lehrer, also an author who covers neuroscience and creativity. He also has a new book coming out this year. I see these as relevant to the way we are addressing unsustainability and other big issues.
Cain leads off with:
> SOLITUDE is out of fashion. Our�companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.�
Lehrer starts with a focus more the old practice of brainstorming that first hit public notice in 1948. It was the brainchild of Alex Osborn, a prominent advertising man. Lehrer doesn’t say how the idea came to be, but I can imagine it came from Osborn working alone; a bit of irony, if so. Osborn claimed that brainstorming, a method still popular today, where a group generates many different ideas about a problem or some challenge, is more ‘creative” than the work of individuals. After much clamor over the years, brainstorming has lost its halo. Lehrer writes:
> The first empirical test of Osborn’s brainstorming technique was performed at Yale University, in 1958. The results were a sobering refutation of Osborn. Although the findings did nothing to dent brainstorming’s popularity, numerous follow-up studies have come to the same conclusion. And yet Osborn was right about one thing: like it or not, human creativity has increasingly become a group process.
What both Cain and Lehrer refer to as group think is the team approach to creativity. They argue that teamwork has become the new groupthink in companies, schools, and even churches. I think it is very important to separate what I and others would call “groupthink,” the building of consensus around a solution to a problem from the work of teams that have been built to delve into complicated questions that take extended periods of time to address. Brainstorming, as designed by Osborn and still practiced today, is a short exercise, generally characterized by the free (unhampered by criticism) offering up of all the ideas coming from members of a group. This is the focus of Cain’s critique. Both she and Lehrer present contradictory data that indicate that single, solitary individuals do a better job at coming up with solutions to design and similar challenges. Lehrer, quoting a Berkeley psychology Professor, Charlan Nemeth who points to the importance of many view points and dissent:
> According to Nemeth, dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints. “There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings,” she says. “Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs”
It seems both organized and informal teams are more effective. The design of spaces to create interchange among the inhabitants can be very effective in letting creativity flow. Many examples, not mentioned in either article, come from the establishment of “skunk works,” buildings located far from the main company facilities where designs for new aircraft, copiers, computer, and other complicated machines arise from the teams assembled. The separation is important because it isolates the team from the everyday conventionality of company life and the existing norms that might stifle ideas that would contravene them. Steve Wozniak’s garage, the birthplace of Apple was sort of one-man skunk works. Cain quotes Wozniak:
> “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.”
My own take on this topic is that the main distinction between “groupthink” and individual or team creativity is the time over which the creation takes place. Osborn invented his system in an advertising agency whose process of creation has been satirized as, “Throw it against the wall and see if it sticks.” This can only be done when it is words that are bandied about. The same holds for groupthink exercises aimed at solving a (complicated) problem like going to war where all sides can be represented by words. Complicated things like airplanes and computers need time, and, with some notable exceptions, teams to create.
The solutions that will produce flourishing in our broken system can come only through teamwork. The system is complex and not amenable to quick fixes. Complexity is the epitome of the interconnections among many different classes of things–people, machines, natural systems. No one discipline holds the answers. The use of brainstorming may bring us “solutions” like green detergents, created the same way that many consumer product companies “invent” new products. But these are no solutions at all. Energy companies need to truly team with climate change scientists, not to discount the threats, but to develop effective solutions. Wood products firms need to work with habitat specialists in the same manner. And on and on.
The need for creative solutions to the biggest problems of our (and maybe any past times) is immense. We can use all the help we can get from those who study the creative process and know how to put their findings into play. In the case of sustainability, the solutions are going to upset the applecart of the present ways of thinking and acting, if they are to even begin to actually solve anything. Unsustainability comes out of the broken machine of our modern culture. Our challenge is to construct a whole new culture. It’s much more than finding a a way to fly faster than sound; that’s easy, contrasted with changing our beliefs, norms and all those wasteful and damaging things we now rely upon. Maybe the new ways of communicating via the Internet can help, but as I interpret both articles, geographic proximity is a critical factor in the quality of creative solutions. Lehrer writes:
> The best research was consistently produced when scientists were working within ten meters of each other; the least cited papers tended to emerge from collaborators who were 10 kilometer or more apart. “If you want people to work together effectively, these findings reinforce the need to create architectures that support frequent, physical, spontaneous interactions,” Kohane says. “Even in the era of big science, when researchers spend so much time on the Internet, it’s still so important to create intimate spaces.
Cain offers a contrasting perspective:
> 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.
Some dissent is positive as a part of the team creative process, but not so much that people stop talking to one another and the dissent turns into angry, ad hominem attacks. If this sounds like the state of our political system, it is meant to. At a time where solutions to many “big” problems are critical, we have fallen into a mode where creative outcomes are virtually impossible. I keep reading pieces that accept the likelihood of some sort of natural or social catastrophe in the not too distant future, but temper the predictions with statements like, “But humans have always conquered their problems through ingenuity.” Maybe so, but the present way of addressing these big issues offers little hope that our collective ingenuity can burst out. We need the artistic creativity both of solo players like Wozniak and of the collective creativity of dedicated teams. And some respect, also.

One Reply to “Creativity, Where Are You?”

  1. Good post. I had read the New Yorker article, but not the Times one. Your combining them helped and I like your conclusion.

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