Seeking Shelter from the Brainstorm

ibm watson team - Seeking Shelter from the Brainstorm

A January 15th New York Times’ opinion piece, “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” Susan Cain argued that solitude rather than collaboration is more conducive to creativity.

“…People,” Cain wrote, “are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.”

She went on to describe a trend in our schools, workplaces, and churches that reflect a bias in favor of teamwork and open-space designs—a bias that encourage formal and informal interactions as the basic approach to learning, work, and even worship. All this hubbub, according to Cain, reduces creativity while making introverts feel like social pariah.

Cain’s writing was the lead opinion piece that day.

A week earlier, the New York Times published an article where the voices in it favor collaboration. This article ran in a slightly less prominent location. I’m disappointed to report.

The article was about the team of scientists responsible for the creation of IBM’s Watson, the natural language computer that trounced elite human competitors in a televised round of Jeopardy. Here’s a quote from David Ferrucci, the Watson development team leader, about the challenge of putting his team together:

“From the first, it was clear that we would have to change the culture of how scientists work. Watson was destined to be a hybrid system. It required experts in diverse disciplines: computational linguistics, natural language processing, machine learning, information retrieval and game theory, to name a few.

“Likewise, the scientists would have to reject an ego-driven perspective and embrace the distributed intelligence that the project demanded. Some were still looking for that silver bullet that they might find all by themselves. But that represented the antithesis of how we would ultimately succeed.”

Where does this leave us with respect to the relationship between collaboration and innovation? Having tried to concentrate on work in crowded noisy environments, I have to admit to a sympathetic reading of Cain’s complaints about “…endless meetings or conference calls that afford no respite from the noise and gaze of co-workers.” On the other hand, I work with a number of extroverts who would be confused by someone needing “respite” from noise and proximity to co-workers.

The whole point of collaboration is that diversity of style and worldview is an asset not a liability. Ferrucci’s challenge in leading the Watson team wasn’t finding expertise; it was finding ways to get experts to build on each other’s thinking. People, often introverts, have suffered from poorly designed collaboration and, not surprisingly, lay the blame on the concept of collaborating rather than on the approach. After all, shouting ideas all at the same time is not the only way to brainstorm.

Solitude is not the opposite of collaboration. It’s a component of a collaborative process designed to bring out the best in everyone. Poorly designed collaboration is not conducive to creativity; it’s not conducive to anything except frustration and a continued pessimism about people’s ability to work together. Well-designed and executed collaboration is not only conducive to creativity, it ensures that creativity gets put to productive use.

So, let’s hear it for solitude! Hip, hip… wait. Where’d everybody go?

Read other posts by Jay G. Cone

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