Despite the enduring myth of the lone genius, innovation does not take place in isolation. Truly productive invention requires the meeting of minds from myriad perspectives, even if the innovators themselves don’t always realize it.
Keith Sawyer, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, calls this “group genius,” and in his book of the same name he introduces a scientific method called interaction analysis to the study of creativity. Through studying verbal cues, body language and incremental adjustments during team innovation efforts, Sawyer shows that what we experience as a flash of insight has actually percolated in social interaction for quite some time.
“Innovation today isn’t a sudden break with the past, a brilliant insight that one lone outsider pushes through to save the company,” he said. “Just the opposite: Innovation today is a continuous process of small and constant change, and it’s built into the culture of successful companies.”
It’s a perspective shared broadly in corporate America. Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation Studios and Disney Animation Studios, describes what he calls “collective creativity” in a cover article in the September issue of Harvard Business Review.
“Creativity involves a large number of people from different disciplines working together to solve a great many problems,” he writes. “Creativity must be present at every level of every artistic and technical part of the organization.”
So, we all should brainstorm our way through the day, right? Wrong. That tool, introduced by Alex Osborn in 1948, has been proved in a number of studies over the last 20 years to be far less effective than generally believed.
“He had it right in terms of group process,” said Drew Boyd, a businessman based in Cincinnati who blogs and speaks often about innovation. “But he had it wrong in terms of the method.”
Brainstorming, Boyd says, is the most overused and underperforming tool in business today. Traditionally, brainstorming revolves around the false premise that to get good ideas, a group must generate a large list from which to cherry-pick. But researchers have shown repeatedly that individuals working alone generate more ideas than groups acting in concert.
Among the problems are these: Throwing in an idea for public consideration generates fear of failure, and workers hoping to advance their own interests often keep their best ideas to themselves until a more opportune time.
Instead of identifying a problem and then seeking solutions, Boyd suggests turning the process around: Break down successful products and processes into separate components, then study those parts to find other potential uses. This process of “systematic inventive thinking,” which evolved from the work of the Russian engineer and scientist Genrich Altshuller, creates “pre-inventive” ideas that then can be expanded into innovations.
Kapro Tools, working with an Israeli company called Systematic Inventive Thinking, used the method to create a new type of bubble leveler calibrated to help build gentle slopes to improve drainage. Previously, construction workers approximated the slope they wanted by placing a nail or other object under the edge of a standard leveler.
“Innovation is a team sport,” Boyd said. “There’s a dynamic that happens between people that produces results I just don’t see with an individual.”
Even Albert Einstein, the most common example of a genius, needed group input to hone his insights. According to “Einstein##s Mistakes” by Hans Ohanian, the great physicist’s derivation of the famous equation E=mc² contained several errors; it wasn’t until 1911 that another scientist, Max von Laue, developed a full and correct proof.
“The best innovations occur when you have networks of people with diverse backgrounds gathering around a problem,” said Robert Fishkin, president and chief executive of Reframeit, a Web 2.0 company that creates virtual space in a Web browser where users can share comments and highlights on any site. “We need to get better at collaborating in noncompetitive ways across company and organizational lines.”
That’s exactly what innovators at a dozen health care systems throughout the country had in mind nearly four years ago when they formed the Innovation Learning Network, says its director, Chris McCarthy. The problem, he says, is that there are so few health care innovators within each organization that introducing technologies and processes can be painstakingly slow.
“We thought if we could get all these experienced folks together to push each other’s thinking continually, we’d all be better off,” he said.
What started as a grant-financed one-year trial is now a member-financed permanent network, he says. The members bring in new technologies and experiment with them in a simulated clinical setting in San Leandro, California. One of the first large-scale initiatives to arise from the network is KP MedRite, an effort at Kaiser Permanente’s 32 hospitals to ensure that nurses are not interrupted while dispensing medications. Other member health care systems have already begun to introduce the program at their sites.
By using the group’s knowledge and experience, Kaiser Permanente accomplished in less than a year what would have required roughly two years to do without the network, McCarthy says. “It was a huge jump-start for us,” he said. “The group effort allows us to move much more quickly and become successful much faster.”
Janet Rae-Dupree writes about science and emerging technology in Silicon Valley. IHT