Innovator Interview: Keith Sawyer on Creativity & Innovation

Keith Sawyer

“Dr. R. Keith Sawyer, a professor of psychology and education at Washington University in St. Louis, is one of the country’s leading scientific experts on creativity. His research has been featured on CNN, Fox News, TIME Magazine, and other media.”

1. What are some of the main barriers to innovation in the work place?
There are many different ways that an organization might block innovation. One common one is the quite sensible desire to increase efficiency, productivity, and quality. Yet if that is the sole goal, then the potential problem is that the organization can become overly risk-averse, and unwilling to tolerate the failures and dead-ends that always occur in innovative organizations. Balancing these two necessary goals is difficult; every innovative organization does it a bit differently. The last four chapters of my book GROUP GENIUS discuss this and other blocks, and give examples of how the most innovative organizations have overcome them.

2. Name one person who influenced how you see things?
The biggest influence on my thought is the famous French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Back in the late 1800s, he was one of the first scholars to study groups, and the relation between individuals and groups. I think he was the first to argue that unexpected novelty could emerge from groups; he called it “collective ideation.” He influenced my writings on emergence, creativity, and collaboration.

3. Your book “Group Genius – The Power of Collaboration” – What made you decide write it?
This is my tenth book, but the first nine were all scholarly, academic books. I realized that my studies of collaborative creativity had important messages for everyone, not just for other scientists. So I wrote GROUP GENIUS to spread the lessons of this research to as many folks as possible.

4. You believe that creativity is always collaborative. Explain to me the importance of brainstorming, and how to engage in a healthy brainstorming session with peers and professionals.
In most companies, brainstorming is not very effective—because it’s not done right. In GROUP GENIUS I summarize decades of research showing that brainstorming fails more often than not. But the research has a silver lining: it shows what you need to do to get it right. First of all, if a company has an organizational culture that is not innovative, then holding a one-hour brainstorming meeting will end up being a waste of time. Second, the face-to-face brainstorming session has to be combined with solitary creative thought, both before and after the session. Third, there are well-known blocks to creativity that have the potential to occur in any brainstorming session, and you need a facilitator who is trained to watch for those blocks. For example, brainstorming groups often get stuck in one train of thought, with lots of suggestions in the same narrow area—and a facilitator can help the group make sure to cover a wider range.

5. What is one easy thing businesses and organizations can do to become more innovative and creative?
The researchers who study innovation are pretty much in consensus about what organizations have to do to become more innovative. And I think it’s safe to say that none of it is that easy…otherwise, you’d see a lot more innovative organizations. One of the easiest of the many recommendations in GROUP GENIUS is to become a more open, outwardly-focused organization. Encourage your people to constantly stay in touch with customers, key business partners, and even with competitors. More than half of the successful new products originate outside of the organization.

6. Any advice you would give an individual with an entrepreneurial idea or invention?
Don’t get too possessive and secretive; the worst thing you can do is to hole yourself up and stop communicating with the world. Every idea can become stronger, and the way to make it stronger is to combine it with other ideas, to test it out with a wide range of potential customers. Your idea is almost certainly not completely unique; others have had similar ideas, and the Internet makes it easy to search for those precursors. Learn from them.

7. You have written that, “in innovative organizations, people are always moving around, bumping unexpectedly into others, and stopping for a few minutes to chat. Offices that support these natural connections have chairs and tables in the hallways or near the stairways, to make such conversations easier.” What other architectural details can hinder creativity, and which ones propel it?
Any architecture that keeps people alone and makes it hard for them to work together can hinder creativity. A good example is all-too-familiar: a long hallway, with each person having their own office, and a conference room down at the end. Every office needs some space for solitary work, but in most buildings the space is almost completely skewed toward solo work, with almost no space for collaborative work.

8. You quoted someone who referred to a theory called “opportunistic innovation.” This theory means you wait for an opportunity with a big pay-off (and low investment), then set your goals and go for it. Inspire our innovative readers by promoting this idea of avoiding setting large goals but, rather, paying close attention to opportunities as they become available.
The main theme of my book is that successful innovation is almost always improvisational. My own research has focused on super-creative groups like jazz ensembles and improv theater groups. When you look at the history of innovation, you always see an improvisational process. Ideas end up being used for a different purpose, in a different project, or to satisfy different customers. An “opportunistic” attitude is one that acknowledges the unexpected improvisational turns of the innovation process. Some organizations (and leaders) are overly focused on the plan they’ve developed, and they end up not seeing the opportunities that emerge unexpectedly.

9. Do you think the Internet has helped us as a society become more innovative, or not?
Absolutely! This is the theme of Chapter 10 of GROUP GENIUS. My book is similar in some ways to a lot of recent books that rave about “Web 2.0” or “collective intelligence.” The difference with my book is that I show that innovation has always worked this way; it’s always been an improvisational and collaborative process, and it occurs in what I call a “collaborative web.” One example of a collaborative web is the geographically dispersed community of Quakers, economics professors, and frat brothers who developed the Monopoly board game over a 30-year period. The main difference with the Internet is that these collaborative webs are more dense, and the innovation process is speeded up—it will never again take 30 years for an innovation to emerge.

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2 Responses

  1. July 19, 2009

    […] networking is a living embodiment of a collaborative web. Keith Sawyer, a psychology professor and creativity researcher, identifies collaborative webs, networks […]

  2. January 16, 2010

    […] 11. Read an interview with author Keith Sawyer, professor of psychology and education at Washington University in St. Louis, is one of the country’s leading scientific experts on collaboration, here […]