Groupthink or Collaborative Genius? Leave me alone!!
Most of my life has been centered around the concept of the individual genius, using a unique skill and set of talents to create a piece of art, a great round of golf, a unique new device—you name it, I was inspired by the creativity and genius exhibited by such unique people.
And to be honest, it made my life a bit simpler. Far from being able to create a beautiful painting, I was unable to even paint a wall or draw a stick figure without significant stress, and likely an initial poor outcome. So I’d leave the creativity to that individual genius—bless his/her soul—and dream about what it would be like to be that creative sort.
In the past 10 years, I’ve had the wondrous of experience of working at ICSI, an organization dedicated to collaboratively addressing issues of evidence-based medicine, quality improvement, and working together to create innovative approaches to solving our problems. Being a voracious reader, I encountered many a tome addressing the power of collaborative approaches, in dealing with the issues confronting us.
In the spirit of transparency, being someone who had felt “creativity challenged” I likely came to this journey with a particular heuristic, and saw ideas which resonated with me, with which I could identify. Whether it was Group Genius by Keith Sawyer, or The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, I saw examples of how the use of a group could solve problems and create outcomes that supposedly would never have been achieved by a sole person. Even someone as pithy as Scott Berkun, in his book The Myth of Innovation, provided reinforcement by articulating the story of J. R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings) and C. S. Lewis (The Narnia Chronicles) and how they were part of a “group” that met weekly in creating their masterpieces. Since it reinforced my belief from my personal experiences, this example further supported my commitment to the collaborative approach.
“All of us together is smarter than anyone of us alone” was a motto seen in many areas, and easy to accept as a driver in my work. And we see this everywhere today—working in teams, in offices without walls, the emphasis on people skills and working interactively—collaboration is the answer, off with the lone genius.
A recent article in the NY Times has raised an interesting perspective, and one that will draw my attention and cause a bit of reflection. In “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” (http://nyti.ms/xU7m0w ) Susan Cain calls for a return to a balanced approach. While there is much to benefit from collaboration, especially if done in the proper environment, and with the application of certain principles, it may at times have an inhibitory effect on the individual creativity which we should still value, and support.
In a typically American way, we have swung from an adoration of the individual genius to the power of the group. But not every great idea comes from a group, and Ms. Cain uses the Jobs/Wozniak comparison as a great example. For often the true creative genius is an introverted, often uncomfortable individual in public venues, but a remarkable fount for ideas and new products when given solitude, isolation, and time without interruption to create their product.
As I reflected on this, I realize that I use my own perceived lack of individual creativity to bring others to the table, where upon hearing of a new thought or approach, my brain explodes with ideas of how to improve, expand, or edit that creation—usually to the delight of the “creative genius” who had the initial idea, and now sees it exploded by a different lens in the discussion.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a fan of collaboration. The problems we are confronting in this world cannot be solved by one individual or one group. The world is too complex for such a thought. But that doesn’t mean that the nugget of a new method, product, or approach can’t come from the individual genius working madly in his/her study/laboratory. Not all wisdom and creativity comes from a collaborative approach. I now realize that there’s a reason I sometimes hide in a corner, shut out the outside world, and let my internal thoughts run amok—it frees up my ability to allow that often dormant creative part of my brain time to cogitate, and surprise me at the most unusual times with a solution for the problem I’m addressing. Then I take it to others, and allow the collaborative process to improve it in ways I’d never imagined.
I’m sure some of you see yourself in this description. It can be difficult being the “lone genius” craving silence, uninterrupted time to contemplate, and constantly thrust into a bustling, restless, talkative, opinionated group. There is value in the wisdom of crowds, but there’s also value in avoiding a total movement to Groupthink, as comfortable as that may be to many of us. After all, Newton, a profound introvert, had to have time alone under an apple tree, to be hit with his ultimate solution to the problem with which he was wrestling. We all need time for that “apple to the forehead” moment, or at least I do.