Thanks to Tim Harford, I have recently discovered a blog on creativity by Keith Sawyer from the University of North Carolina. He is the author of Group Genius in which he argues that creativity comes from collaboration rather than from a few brilliant individuals.
[W]e’re drawn to the image of the lone genius whose mystical moment of insight changed the world. But the lone genius is a myth; instead, it’s group genius that generates breakthrough innovation. When we collaborate, creativity unfolds across people; the sparks fly faster, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
There is plenty of evidence, he says, to kill off the legend of the brilliant loner:
[T]he myth of the genius is relatively recent: it emerged during the Romantic period. And pretty much all of the people we think of as natural, solitary geniuses were in fact deeply collaborative in their work.
The evidence that collaboration drives creativity is overwhelming.
[A]ll of the conversation I hear is about how entrepreneurs drive innovation. We keep hearing that small startups identify opportunities that big companies miss. Visionary outsiders come up with radical ideas, that transform entire industries, and make billions of dollars in the process. That’s the story we’re used to hearing…and this new article says just the opposite!
Basically, entrepreneurs have only two choices. Either they can work in ways that are “compatible with existing institutions” or they can “engage in collective action to change the institutional order.” The second option is pretty darned hard, and usually isn’t possible.
[E]ntrepreneurs are even more constrained by these institutional forces than established firms, because they’re just trying to get on their feet and stay alive; and they have to steal away customers from the established players, and those customers are comfortable with the old ways of doing business. “New ventures often adopt the structures of incumbent firms in their industry. Although not very creative, it is a rational choice for entrepreneurs wishing to grow their ventures successfully”
[I]t’s time to get rid of “the heroic image of innovative entrepreneurs that have plagued entrepreneurship research for decades”
This is a similar theme to Ha Joon Chang’s:
Very much influenced by capitalist folklore, with characters such as Thomas Edison and Bill Gates, and by the pioneering work of Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian-born Harvard economics professor, our view of entrepreneurship is too much tinged by the individualistic perspective – entrepreneurship is what those heroic individuals with exceptional vision and determination do.
However, if it ever was true, this individualistic view of entrepreneurship is becoming increasingly obsolete. In the course of capitalist development, entrepreneurship has become an increasingly collective endeavour.
If effective entrepreneurship ever was a purely individual thing, it has stopped being so at least for the last century. The collective ability to build and manage effective organizations and institutions is now far more important than the drives or even the talents of a nation’s individual members in determining its prosperity.
That last point is important. Innovation needs organisation. As Wharton’s Ethan Mollick said, in his exquisitely titled study People and Process, Suits and Innovators, it’s the middle managers who make the difference, even in creative, innovative, and knowledge-intensive industries.
[V]ariation among middle managers has a particularly large impact on firm performance, much larger than that of those individuals who are assigned innovative roles.
[I]t is the individuals who fill the role of middle managers – the “suits” – rather than the creative innovators that best explain variation in firm performance.
The results also show that middle managers are necessary to facilitate firm performance in creative, innovative, and knowledge-intensive industries.
While organisations often put barriers in the way of innovation, at least they have the infrastructure and the collective space to bring people together, allow them to co-create and then turn that creativity into something tangible.
All this got me thinking. If self-employment and the gig economy really are the future of work what does this mean for creativity and innovation? How will an increasingly atomised workforce, doing bits and pieces here an there, create anything new?
Doubtless many will respond by saying that self-employed people collaborate all the time and are, especially in professional occupations, usually very well networked. All of that is true but that’s not the sort of working together that creates things. You can meet people in coffee shops, kick around ideas and even work on the odd project with them but real collaboration means committing to each other and working together over a long period to take an idea through to its conclusion. That’s how we learn and ultimately how e innovate. It’s not impossible to achieve this outside a formal organisation but it’s much more difficult.
This is what the advocates of more self-employment and the gig economy miss. It is organisation that moves the world forward. If more of the workforce is outside formal organisations then it must create other forms of organisation if it is to work to its full potential. That’s what I was getting at when I wrote about the Olympic Torch as a metaphor. Bringing lots of little fires together to make a big one.
Organisation and institutions enable creativity and bring us the prosperity that goes with it. Disorganisation and fragmentation don’t. An fragmented and disconnected workforce will find it much more difficult to harness their group genius. More of us working in this way implies a steady erosion of the country’s human capital. Last month, Institute for Employment Studies Director Nigel Meager remarked that we haven’t even begun to understand the “possible downsides of a world in which more people spend more of their working lives in this form of work”. One of them might be that much of our creative talent never gets chance to bloom.
Update: Recent research from the Centre for Economic Policy Research found that worker productivity is contagious. Peer effects and networks between workers cause a productivity spillover. Team members learn from each other and raise each other’s performance. As the old saying goes, the whole is greater than the same of the parts.