Remember Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl a decade ago? Family-friendly media watchdogs condemned her, the FCC imposed a $500,000 fine on CBS, and the fiasco made her the most searched-for term on Google in 2004.
Friends Steve Chen, Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim wondered why it was so hard to share that video — along with clips of a dinner party Chen had hosted — so they launched YouTube. Twenty months later, the site had grown so much and so fast that Google paid $1.65 billion. The rest is, as they say, history. Today, YouTube remains a media juggernaut, setting the tempo of film, TV and music industries, and replacing radio as the place to listen to free music.
While YouTube was a genuinely innovative idea, one that changed the world, it gives an lesson in how to come up with good ideas: working with friends, combine small ideas into bigger ones and do something fun.
When we think about genius and creativity, we tend to think of individual artists, inventors and writers: Einstein, Newton, Jobs. You know the myth: a lone genius labors alone to suddenly be hit with a bolt of intellectual or creative lightning that changes the world.
But according to experts, this auteur-centric model of brilliance is wrong. Great ideas, they say, come not from lone geniuses, but from collaborative interaction. Geniuses and creators don’t work and live in a vacuum — they’re connected to people, who connect them to ideas, resources, feedback and other valuable parts of the creative process. Reducing brilliant innovation to just a series of “Eureka!” moments fails to acknowledge the social context that nourishes the creativity of scientists and artists.
It also fails to spotlight the work of teams, such as YouTube’s Hurley, Chen and Karim — smart people who put their heads together for a brilliant idea that none of them could likely come up with, much less execute, on their own.
Another group-driven creative idea will use large, toxic amounts of nuclear waste to power alternate sources of energy.
In 2010, when likeminded MIT students Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie passed their qualifying Ph.D. exams, they sat on a bench under the famous dome of MIT’s main building to ponder their next steps. They came up with an idea to create a start-up to build their own nuclear reactor. It was a crazy notion, due to the technical hurdles and international scale, and it would also need millions of dollars in funding.
But no one else was doing it, and nuclear engineering was ripe for innovation. “We had this sense that there are so many unexplored aspects of nuclear technology,” Dewan told the New Yorker. “We knew that there would be something out there that would work, and would be better.”
Dewan and Massie pulled in collaborators, including Russell Wilcox, former CEO of E-Ink, who was also their professor. Together, they dug up an old patent on reactors from the 1960s to develop a way to “burn” radioactive fuel with a minimum amount of environmental impact.
Three years later, the three raised millions, started the company Transatomic, and won first prize in an innovation contest sponsored by the Department of Energy. More importantly, their solution will process all 270,000 tons of existing nuclear waste to generate enough energy to power the entire Earth’s energy needs for 72 years.
It’s a great idea, but more importantly, it wouldn’t have come into being without the group propelling one another, bringing in new or forgotten ideas and teasing out unexpected directions.
Transatomic’s example also emphasizes another key aspect to the alternate model of innovation: great ideas are less one grand invention or idea, but rather the brilliant recombination and repurposing of older, smaller elements into more complex, ambitious ones.
In terms of scientific and artistic innovation, smaller components — essentially, odds and ends — have to be invented before they can be combined into world-changing ideas and inventions. Cultural thinkers and philosophers call this process “bricolage,” while business writer Steven Johnson calls it “the adjacent possible,” a term coined from scientist Stuart Kauffman.
Think of it this way: in the auteur model of brilliance and innovation, the lone genius comes up with the idea of a beautiful building and labors for years before building it. In the collaborative “adjacent possible” model of creativity, a group of passionate minds already find themselves in a building, which they can only explore room by room, one door leading to another.
Only after years of exploration do they make it outside, where they discover they’ve been exploring a palace — and only now are they able to build a whole new wing or addition to the palace that brings the structure into the new century.
Johnson made that point in his book, “Where Good Ideas Come From,” in which he points to a number of inventions that follow the “adjacent possible” model of innovation. The printing press, he points out, would not have been possible until the invention of moveable type, ink and cheap paper. Closer to our time, YouTube, according to Johnson, wouldn’t have been possible without the previous invention of cheap video cameras, broadband and smartphones.
This is all well and good, you think, but what if we’re not tech employees or MIT engineering students? How can we create our own equivalent of an impromptu group brainstorm that leads to a great idea like YouTube, or our own soul-searching conversation with a colleague on a bench? How can we create the “adjacent possible” and foster group collaboration, especially at a time when connections between groups are more tenuous than ever?
After all, more of us move farther away from our families; we can go weeks without seeing friends as we get busy with kids, hobbies, work and pastimes; and more of us even work in nontraditional arrangements such as telecommuting.
We used to network to keep in touch with the far-flung reaches of our community. But who has time to meet for long lunches to exchange news and ideas? And the old-fashioned dynamic is stilted — it fails to meet the standards of open, relaxed conviviality that exists between friends who talk during breaks or after hours over dinner and drinks. This is also why formal processes like brainstorming often fail.
Social networks like Facebook have stepped into the breach, and while we can follow advice to post news on our latest projects, post helpful insightful articles and crowdsource ideas, we also have to wade through time-consuming streams of selfies, baby pictures and online drama. Too often a tech-based solution creates more work and mental clutter, just in a different way.
Some enlightened workplaces are actually going back to the drawing board, and rethinking the actual office layout itself. According to the Wall Street Journal, for example, adding windows, heightening ceilings and even using a blue palette can foster creativity in an office.
But for companies that don’t have the luxury of gutting their buildings, what can they do? Philips, for example, doesn’t assign employees to a desk or cubicle, but instead lets them work wherever they want within a location, creating the feeling of mobility and freedom. People stay connected wirelessly and company-wide information are stored in the cloud, able to be accessed wherever and whenever.
The idea is to boost a workplace’s “bump factor,” which allows workers to meet and exchange ideas with those outside their usual groups or offices. These collisions are often fortuitous, helping workers see their own information in a new way and leading to new alliances and combinations. By allowing workers a degree of autonomy and freedom, Phillips hopes to spark new ideas and projects.
For those who work alone or at home, you can boost your own bump factor by simply working in a new area or coffee shop — changing what you look at or where you work can keep your mind and ideas fresh. Co-working arrangements — in which freelancers and others rent out desks at a group office space filled with other creatives and solo-preneurs — are also rising in popularity, offering the chance to meet and work with others.
Changing up physical routines also helps: take a new route on your commute, or take your laptop to another room to work. It might just shake something loose in your creative mind.
Beyond re-arranging your physical space, companies and workers create their own mobile version of the “adjacent possible.” Offices use apps to allow workers to collaborate and stay in touch with one another, independent of time and place. Project management apps, such as Asana, Basecamp, Trello and Flow, let workers share ideas and accomplishments and get feedback. Others have real-time whiteboards that facilitate remote collaboration.
These tools and office arrangements, though, require a degree of trust and flexibility from employers and companies. They must rethink assumptions of productivity, teamwork and accountability. But if a company is really in the business of great market-changing ideas, then the rewards of greater worker satisfaction and creativity may be worth it.
It’s not enough to bring people together and give them new tools to share ideas and information. What’s also important is the underlying dynamic: simply put, it helps to have fun and enjoy yourself.
Social innovation experts are just beginning to study the impact of play upon grown-up creativity, but child psychologists and even ancient philosophers have long been keen on the importance of playtime for kids. Education expert Friedrich Froebel, who opened the first kindergarten in 1837, said play is “deeply significant” in children’s development, and Plato believed play was essential to help children grow up into virtuous citizens.
The Greek philosopher was right: Stuart Brown, a psychologist at Baylor University who studied play and children for years, interviewed 26 convicted Texas murderers for a small pilot study and discovered that most of the killers were from abusive families and never played as kids. According to Scientific American, after 6,000 more interviews, his data shows children need time for unstructured imaginative play, often in a group — or else they often fail to thrive and grow into functioning adults.
Free play for children helps develop critical social skills, problem-solving abilities and teaches us to deal with stress. And yet as adults, we often fail to build in play time for ourselves and in our groups — and we’re likely short-circuiting our creative and innovative abilities as a result.
But structuring and building in time and opportunities for spontaneous play is a difficult, ironic task. Measures like “innovation gyms” often fail, simply because they seem stilted or don’t foster the right kind of play that leads to good ideas.
Instead, groups should look at the concept of “magic circles.” Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga, in his 1938 book Homo Ludens, defined magic circles as temporary, enclosed zones within ordinary environments.
These special spaces — like stages, gaming arenas or courts and playgrounds — are an oasis from normal activity and concerns, where hierarchies are upended, trust is built and people play by a different set of rules. Magic circles as an idea has been applied to disparate areas such as markets, law and politics, as well as digital media like gaming, but the idea is just now being applied to group innovation.
Making a magic circle within a group or organization isn’t a top-down project, however — they are grassroots efforts that change and adapt as different workers join it, reflecting their styles and personalities. What’s important in any magic circle, though, is the ability to “play” at different creative skills, to fail without consequence and to learn from these mistakes in a supportive, non-critical environment.
Sounds difficult, but many top companies have managed to grow their own version of magic circles. According to Fast Company, Jony Ive‘s design studio at Apple is an example of a magic circle: within the studio, the pace is calm, and engineers and designers play around with designs and prototypes without worrying about product maps or schedules.
Apple’s reputation for innovation and creativity is well-known, and many companies and groups aspire to its standard. But the task of boosting collective creativity isn’t an easy one. Creativity is an unpredictable alchemy, based on group chemistry and balancing the tension between structure and spontaneity.
Still, many hoping to bottle lightning are loosening up old ideas of what offices and workdays look like, changing up old routines and bringing back the playground spirit to their schedules and workplaces. No one knows when the next water cooler gathering, raucous dinner party or post-exam hangout will lead to the next great idea, but why not have fun and create community while trying?
This post is sponsored by Dimension Data. ♦