I have set myself the challenge, this calendar year, to create some training to help organisations boost their ability to be innovative (I will leave the specifics till a future date). I am drawn to do this because I have, in one way or another, had a long history with people who were creative and innovative. The process of winkling an idea out of someone’s head and into tangible form has long fascinated me; of a darker, unhappier fascination have been those elements that kill or enfeeble a promising innovation and how, perhaps, these can be dealt with.
Innovators come in all shapes and sizes and accordingly require a diversity of conditions in which to operate. And yet, somehow, as a society we have a set of assumptions about the ways that creative thinking and / or innovative activity evolve and manifest that are a bit ‘sameish’. I just read a terrific article on The New Republic website (www.newrepublic.com ) by Elizabeth Winkler called The Innovation Myth: Why You Can’t Engineer Creativity with ‘Innovation Districts’. I think that innovation districts and hubs have their place, but I think this piece has some ideas worth considering.
It highlights the popular idea that group activity can produce great ideas and then great innovations, that the collaborative process rules. The article then goes on to offer opinions and evidence that this is not the case, that sometimes collaborative processes can stifle creativity. As an introvert with a long history of being creative and innovative (and being around others of the same ilk) I let out a hearty cheer when I saw supporting quotes from Susan Cain’s splendid book ‘Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’! I also loved this quote from Steve Wozniak:
“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me—they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist … Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.”
Now, I have worked with some people who have very extroverted personalities who absolutely love to work as part of a group, and find the cut and thrust of the group dynamic to be a springboard for ideation and effective innovative process. But not everyone is cut from the same cloth; some of us, like Wozniak, require solitude with the same urgency that extroverts require the dynamism of a group. In my own work and creative history there have been plenty of times when I have been compelled by well-meaning colleagues or managers to participate in group activities – workshops, training sessions, rehearsals, brainstorming sessions – and I have done so through gritted teeth and with a sinking heart. These things have left me often exhausted and uninspired, sometimes anxious and disorientated.
More positively and happily, I have willingly accessed groups for company, to test material or iterations on an audience, to provide a bit of fun, or, importantly, to develop networks to support my projects. But my richest creative thinking and most effective innovative grunt work has always happened when I have been alone. I am not the only introvert I know who is like this.
Innovative districts or even single hubs can certainly provide the positive benefits I outlined above to people like me (and Winkler alludes to this in her last sentence). They can certainly be a source of creative and innovative insight and activity for my extroverted brethren. I view the evolution of the co-working movement with great satisfaction, and think that it brings some exciting possibilities and lovely values into the business world. You can’t “engineer creativity” in these, or any, physical set up. But you can use innovative hubs to generate opportunities for creative insight for extroverts.
And there’s the nub: we need, as a society, to understand that creative thinking and the potential to realise that with innovative outcomes can be available to everyone; it’s a defining feature of the human species. But we need, also, to understand that the path to doing this is different for everyone. It is not the sole purview of those who function well in jolly group settings.
All my life I have surprised people without meaning too. It’s why I call myself Dangerous Meredith. I think people see me as a quiet and assume maybe that I’m a bit dull, somewhat passive, a reliable workhorse and perhaps a potential yes-man. But then I rouse myself out of a reverie and pop certain ideas into the conversation, or go ahead to do stuff that I think is useful but which other people find startling (perhaps even threatening to their perception of the status-quo). As an introvert I have often felt locked out of society’s approved mechanisms or forums for generating or articulating ideas; in group settings my ideas are shot down in flames for being strange or are not heard at all.
What people like me need is a pathway into accessing group support when we have finished our solitary work in our hidey-holes, and when we are ready and able to articulate what the hell it is we have been doing. I don’t have a problem with innovation districts existing, even though I do fully understand the dubiousness that Winkler seems to be expressing in her article. But I just hope that whoever is designing them remembers to leave a pathway open (physically, culturally, socially) so that us outliers can visit and share.