Great creative teams — what do they all have in common? What can we learn from them?
Keith Sawyer got his PhD studying under Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — the researcher who coined the idea of Flow. Sawyer looked at how creativity came about in collaborations vs. individuals. He analyzed jazz ensembles, improv comedy groups and other great creative teams to see what worked.
What did he find?
1. Innovation Emerges over Time
No single actor comes up with the big picture, the whole plot. The play emerges bit by bit. Each actor, in each line of dialogue, contributes a small idea. In theater, we can see this process on stage; but with an innovative team, outsiders never see the long chain of small, incremental ideas that lead to the final innovation. Without scientific analysis, the collaboration remains invisible. Successful innovations happen when organizations combine just the right ideas in just the right structure.
2. Successful Collaborative Teams Practice Deep Listening
Trained improv actors listen for the new ideas that the other actors offer in their improvised lines, at the same time that they’re coming up with their own ideas. This difficult balancing act is essential to group genius. Most people spend too much time planning their own actions and not enough time listening and observing others.
3. Team Members Build on Their Collaborators’ Ideas
When teams practice deep listening, each new idea is an extension of the ideas that have come before. The Wright brothers couldn’t have thought of a moving vertical tail until after they discovered adverse yaw, and that discovery emerged from their experiments with wing warping. Although a single person may get credit for a specific idea, it’s hard to imagine that person having that idea apart from the hard work, in close quarters, of a dedicated team of like-minded individuals. Russ Mahon— one of the Morrow Dirt Club bikers from Cupertino— usually gets credit for putting the first derailleur on a fat-tired bike, but all ten members of the club played a role.
4. Only Afterwards Does the Meaning of Each Idea Become Clear
Even a single idea can’t be attributed to one person because ideas don’t take on their full importance until they’re taken up, reinterpreted, and applied by others. At the beginning of Jazz Freddy’s performance, we don’t know what John is doing: Is he studying for a test? Is he balancing the books of a criminal organization? Although he was the first actor to think of “studying,” the others decided that he would be a struggling umpire, a man stubbornly refusing to admit that he needed glasses. Individual creative actions take on meaning only later, after they are woven into other ideas, created by other actors. In a creative collaboration, each person acts without knowing what his or her action means. Participants are willing to allow other people to give their action meaning by building on it later.
5. Surprising Questions Emerge
The most transformative creativity results when a group either thinks of a new way to frame a problem or finds a new problem that no one had noticed before. When teams work this way, ideas are often transformed into questions and problems. That’s critical, because creativity researchers have discovered that the most creative groups are good at finding new problems rather than simply solving old ones.
6. Innovation Is Inefficient
In improvisation, actors have no time to evaluate new ideas before they speak. But without evaluation, how can they make sure it’ll be good? Improvised innovation makes more mistakes, and has as many misses as hits. But the hits can be phenomenal; they’ll make up for the inefficiency and the failures. After the full hourlong Jazz Freddy performance, we never do learn why Bill and Mary are making copies for John— that idea doesn’t go anywhere. In the second act, a brief subplot in which two actors are in the witness protection program also is never developed. Some ideas are just bad ideas; some of them are good in themselves, but the other ideas that would be necessary to turn them into an innovation just haven’t happened yet. In a sixty-minute improvisation, many ideas are proposed that are never used. When we look at an innovation after the fact, all we remember is the chain of good ideas that made it into the innovation; we don’t notice the many dead ends.
7. Innovation Emerges from the Bottom Up
Improvisational performances are self-organizing. With no director and no script, the performance emerges from the joint actions of the actors. In the same way, the most innovative teams are those that can restructure themselves in response to unexpected shifts in the environment; they don’t need a strong leader to tell them what to do. Moreover, they tend to form spontaneously; when like-minded people find each other, a group emerges. The improvisational collaboration of the entire group translates moments of individual creativity into group innovation. Allowing the space for this self-organizing emergence to occur is difficult for many managers because the outcome is not controlled by the management team’s agenda and is therefore less predictable. Most business executives like to start with the big picture and then work out the details. In improvisational innovation, teams start with the details and then work up to the big picture. It’s riskier and less efficient, but when a successful innovation emerges, it’s often so surprising and imaginative that no single individual could have thought of it.
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