How collaboration can lead to a much higher chance of creative products and radical innovation

Collaboration is one of the top buzzwords at the moment — by some, it is seen as the answer to solving every business challenge out there. As you can probably deduce from the title, I agree that this can be the case — but that it isn’t always the case.

TL;DR

For groups of people to be able to create ground-breakingly creative innovations, you have to provide them with the right conditions. This means finding the right people, and allowing them as much freedom as possible — no rigid hierarchy or bureaucracy, or even formal leadership. They need to improvise right on the edge of chaos. Make sure they are able to enter group flow. Make sure there is lots of communication — spoken, but more importantly also via material externalisations, who not only capture ideas, but also help to shape them.

Groups and how they work

Keith Sawyer, a collaborator and student of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, studied jazz-bands and improv actors in the 90s. He found that the kind of improvisational collaboration found in those types of groups was a very pure and effective gateway to creative expression. Here, there was room for ambiguity, which led to many different creative directions being explored (divergence). There was also a flat hierarchy; the group organised and led itself, leaving each person free to contribute exactly what he or she wanted, which enabled the group as a whole to draw on each individual group members’ knowledge in a highly effective way. I’ll get into more detail about the conditions for such a group a little later.

However, we all know that there are other types of groups as well — for example in the work place where the hierarchy is not flat, and where emphasis is put on making decisions (convergence). In these types of groups, each person’s contribution is not considered equally valuable. Instead, emphasis tends to be on the HIPPO (highest-paid person’s opinion). Criticism can also be quite frequent in these types of groups — because it’s about making decisions, right? These are some of the causes for dysfunctional brainstorming sessions, crappy design by committee, and innovations that are not very creative.

At this point I feel a few definitions may be in order for clarity’s sake — but obviously, feel free to skip these if they are familiar to you.

Creativity

something that is both a novel idea and which is also useful. It is not enough that it is merely new — it also has to have utility. The phrase “wuu oi oi oi oi woooooo” is new, but not particularly useful. A hammer is useful, but not new.

Innovation

the introduction of something creative into a market place, or an organisation, or indeed any context. Inventors who make a lot of money are the ones who are able to think up creative (= novel + useful) stuff and introduce them in a market where they generate value. Inventors who do not master this introduction to a market are daydreamers — plain and simple. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but those kinds of inventors may need to partner up with a more business-oriented partner :)

Divergence

the process of generating more ideas; of widening the conceptual arena you are in; of thinking up possibilities

Convergence

the process of eliminating ideas, of narrowing the conceptual arena you are in; of making decisions about which possibilities you want to go with.

A note on creativity and the idea of Creative Genius

Getting back to the topic at hand: collaboration, and why it can lead to highly creative innovations. At this point I need to say a bit about ideas, and how ideas are born, since this obviously ties in with creativity. Originally, in the 1950s when psychologists started studying creativity, their conception was that ideas come about in a sudden flash of insight — a “heureka moment”, usually conceived by a lone genius. Creativity was, in other words, thought to be a rare gift, bestowed on a precious few. Many people still think this is true, and consider themselves to be un-creative.

Nowadays, however, creativity research has shown that the “lone genius myth” is indeed a myth — we are all creative, and we all have ideas, all the time! Some people are better at it than others, because it’s a skill they use and train — but we are all born creative and stay creative through most of our childhood (until it is taught out of us, if we allow this).

So ideas are not a product only of a genius mind. Another thing they are not, is isolated from the world. Having an idea is not an isolated event. Rather, ideas can be thought of as sparks. Someting ignites your idea — your spark, and this idea is capable of igniting new sparks — both in yourself and in other people, and this is where collaboration comes into the picture in a big way.

The basis for having ideas

Each person has a repertoire of ideas, experiences, know-how, tacit knowledge, habits, customs, etc. When Newton saw an apple falling, it sparked in him an idea, which became part of the theory of gravity. But that spark would not have been possible without all of Newton’s existing repertoire. It was an idea that was a result of Newton’s combined experiences and knowledge about the Earth and the Cosmos AND the apple falling from the tree. Keith Sawyer mentions five stages in relation to having ideas: preparation, incubation, the spark, selection, elaboration. Newton’s life up until that point was a preparation and incubation for that particular spark to occur. He saw that it had potential (selection) and went to work on elaborating it.

Okay — what’s the point? The point I’m gradually getting closer to is that when you are collaborating with a group of people, you multiply the available repertoires, potentially by the amount of people in the group. That means there are many many more opportunities for sparks to take hold (in people’s minds), which can ignite new sparks, which can ignite new sparks, etc. To stay in the sparks visual metaphor, it can start an explosion of ideas and creativity. But as I started out saying, there are groups, and then there are groups. You can’t do what I have just described, if you are in a group which is hell-bent on not allowing this process of ignition to happen. Which is more or less the definition of many corporate groups, whose primary focus is decision making, rather than generating options to decide between.

Now don’t get me wrong — making decisions is also important, obviously. Otherwise nothing would ever get done. But if we do not allow divergence, we will be stuck with only the ideas and concepts we already have, and that is — by definition — not creative. So by staying in a convergent, decision-making mode, we are effectively cutting ourselves off from the possibility of innovation, which (as defined above) is the introduction of something creative into some type of market. If what you are after is radical innovation —you will certainly fail

Okay.. great. Now what?

If you accept everything I’ve said so far — how do you then achieve groups that are actually creative and able to generate the ideas you need?

I’ve touched on a few things so far. For groups to get creative — to get effectively creative — they need to be free to improvise. Like a jazz band does, or an improv theater does. This means a semi-structured frame with room to explore ambiguous lines, where group members build on the sparks of others, and allow ideas to emerge. It means a self-organising structure with no formal leadership or hierarchy, without predefined solutions, answers or demands. A structure where nobody is boss and everybody is boss.. where the group is the boss. This type of structure allows for openness, ambiguity, divergence and exploration, which is what is necessary if you want to tap into each others’ repertoire and get the creative sparks flying.

Effective creative teams understand that…

  • creativity is a process where ideas emerge over time (the term for this is literally emergence).
  • meaning will become clear during the process
  • surprises will emerge — things you did not expect will surface. You need to allow this to happen, and to change your perception (your framing) accordingly
  • group creativity and innovation is not efficient — it takes time, and you need to generate many ideas to find the few good ones
  • group creativity innovation is bottom-up, meaning that it comes from the people who are in the group and in the process.

Effective creative teams do this…

  • build on each others’ ideas (“yes, and..” rather than “no, because..”)
  • don’t criticise. “The critical voice is the enemy of creativity” (Osborn)
  • practice deep listening. They listen actively and openly, and respond spontaneously.
  • improvise.
  • enter group flow

Individual and group flow

Now for the last one, entering group flow — how is this done, exactly? You probably know all about Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory, which characterises flow as the state we are in when we are fully focused, fully energised, and in full enjoyment of an activity. Some people call it the secret to happiness — others call it The Zone. Both are probably true. The way to being in a flow state (as an individual) is as follows:

  1. your skills match whatever it is you’re doing. It’s not too easy — and not too hard
  2. your goal is clear
  3. you are getting constant and immediate feedback
  4. your focus is on the task at hand

According to Keith Sawyer, this can also be achieved for groups. As we recall, Sawyer studied jazz bands and improv groups, and deduced the following criteria.

10 criteria for a group to reach a flow state

  1. The group’s goal is clear
  2. The group practices deep listening
  3. There is total concentration
  4. The group is in control of the process
  5. Individual egos are suppressed — the group identity is primary
  6. The hierarchy is flat — nobody is in charge and everybody is in charge
  7. People are familiar with each other — but not too familiar. You don’t want people’s sparks to be very similar
  8. People communicate — through random and spontaneous conversations, and through externalization (there is more about this in a bit)
  9. There is clear progress
  10. There is a potential for failure — i.e. there is some pressure to perform

Some more practical, hands-on stuff

All of the stuff I’ve talked about so far has been in relation to creativity as a concept, group dynamics, and in general maybe a bit “cerebral” stuff. But in the last part here, I wanted to mention something that has always been immensely important in the design processes I’ve been involved with. This something is externalisation.

Okay, so what is externalisation? Well basically, it simply means the act of externalising something from yourself. It means putting something from your head, out into the world. This can be by means of talking or writing. It can also be through sketches, models, renderings, songs, music. “So externalisation is communication?” Yes, it is. But there is more to it than that. Communication is only the first and most obvious aspect of talking, or sketching an idea, or writing a memo.

The next aspect of externalisation is the formative function it has. When you have an idea or a thought in your head, it is incomplete, and can be very fuzzy and ill-defined. The act of writing it down or saying it out loud helps to shape it, and make it concrete. It is not a passive transfer of the thought from your head to the paper — it is an active, formational process that actually shapes the thought. It is also an emergent process — stuff emerges in the process of writing that you did not anticipate.

The third aspect of externalisation is the you create intellectual ressources for yourself and others, in the world. What do I mean by that? Simply that by writing something down, or sketching something out, you remove it from yourself in both time and space. The idea that you wrote down transcends you — or you transcend it. However you choose to look at it, this allows you to reflect much more objectively on your idea. In this case, merely saying something out loud is not applicable. For transcendence, you need to capture your idea in a more staying form — such as a sketch, or a written note.

Finally, the fourth aspect of externalisation is that the things we put externalise — put into the world — tell us things that we could not have anticipated. This is why architects build models, for example. To see which effect their “idea” (their building design) has on the world, so that they can transform their idea, should the results be less than desirable.

You call that practical?

Yes — in relation to group collaboration, it is extremely important to understand the power of externalisation. When you have conversations with your collaborators, it is not just an act of passing on information from person A to person B. It is an active process that shapes ideas as you speak. Similarly, when you sketch together on a whiteboard, it is an important process to go through. It is not a waste of time — it can never be a waste of time — because the process of sketching itself is helping to shape the ideas. It also captures them for reflection, now or later, and it helps understand potential issues with the idea. Very important.

Wrapping up — a few pointers, do’s and dont’s

I’ve been through many concrete things to do regarding group flow and group collaboration. Here are a few final do’s:

  • A general framework within which to work can help. In jazz, musicians frequently work “within” a well-known song. This, along with their knowledge and understanding of conventions, help them to improvise. They know the “frame” they are working in.
  • Create low-pressure situations. Having a deadline tomorrow does not make you more creative. It makes you make decisions.
  • Improvise on the edge of chaos — keep the conditions for collaboration as loose as possible, without degenerating into chaos

And a few final dont’s. If you wish to kill all chances of group creativity, these are some things to do:

  • have a lot of bureaucracy
  • time pressure
  • high pressure, stressed-out situations
  • pre-defined problems / solutions
  • too much structure

Thanks for reading so far — I’m amazed you made it through. Here are a few sources for further reading if you are so inclined. The overall idea of this article is derived from Keith Sawyer’s book Group Genius. The specifics about creating group flow are also taken from this book — I highly recommend reading it.

Notes

  • Sawyer, Keith. Group genius: The creative power of collaboration. Basic Books, 2007.
  • Osborn, Alex F. “Applied imagination.” (1953).
  • Dix, Alan, and Layda Gongora. “Externalisation and design.” In Procedings of the second conference on creativity and innovation in design, pp. 31–42. ACM, 2011.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. “Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention.” New Yprk: Harper Collins (1996).
  • Amabile, Teresa M., Regina Conti, Heather Coon, Jeffrey Lazenby, and Michael Herron. “Assessing the work environment for creativity.” Academy of management journal 39, no. 5 (1996): 1154–1184.
  • Baregheh, Anahita, Jennifer Rowley, and Sally Sambrook. “Towards a multidisciplinary definition of innovation.” Management decision 47, no. 8 (2009): 1323–1339.
  • Runco, Mark A., and Garrett J. Jaeger. “The standard definition of creativity.” Creativity Research Journal 24, no. 1 (2012): 92–96.
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