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Live from FEI 2013: Brainstorming with Keith Sawyer (Q&A)

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Keith Sawyer is a researcher and expert in creativity, and offered us the opportunity to give us his take on the world of creativity and creativity in the business world in a fun Q&A.  (Author's note: It is hard to take down answers verbatim, so these are my takes on Keith's answers.)

Q: Susan Kane wrote about a book about being an introvert in a world that can't stop talking, and that solitude facilitates creativity -- how does this jibe with your contention that collaboration is key?
A: I actually published a letter showing how she misread some of the research, and pointed out that, while there is a role for solitude in the creative process (for incubation), you need to meet with other people, too.

Q: Do you have any suggestions for collaborating remotely?
A: So far, nobody has nailed online collaboration solutions.  The components of distant collaboration are out there, but no one has really integrated it.  Face-to-face time is key, and it is critical for creativity.  When Marissa Meyer published her non-telecommuting policy, people strongly disagreed, but face time, collaboration, and meeting, are all key for innovating.  More than 2-3 days per week of telecommuting may be too much for a company that wants to capitalize on creative and innovative processes.

Q: Do you think hackathons (e.g., Atlassian ShipIt Days) work?  Do they really produce something worthwhile?
A: Definitely!  The challenge is: people need to get work done.  But, in the course of everyday work, a diverse group of people just can't come together.  So, a hackathon allows people who might not have encountered one another to band together and work on either a specific problem or a brainstorming session.  Jam sessions are a great way to have open innovation.

Q: Can collaboration and innovation be managed as a science?
A: The challenge of organizational design is the bottom-up emergence and the top-down organized structures.  Techniques like Google's 20% Time wouldn't work everywhere, because people often need top-down guidance.

Q: When you have a bunch of people in a room with radically different perspectives, how can you make sure that everyone gets heard?
A: Groups are more creative often with a trained facilitator.  The facilitator can know who hasn't contributed mentioned stuff.  Also, make people wait before you call on someone to give quieter people time to think.

Q: Can you suggest some tips and tricks to make sure that we get the most from ideation sessions?
A: (Many of Keith Sawyer's books are filled with these).  Context is more important than the individual, so make sure that you have the right context.  It's not about having creative people in the room, but more about having a context in which creativity is free to flow (and good cognitive diversity).

Q: How can the environment and/or workspace be adapted to facilitate more creativity?
A: The environment for the one-day workshop is not nearly as important as the space in which people work everyday.  Companies like Steelcase are doing some interesting work on creating collaborative spaces -- but, there remain times when people need to be alone and incubate.

Q: What kinds of exercises can facilitate creative thinking?
A: Any sort of forced association is a great technique, because it gets you to go in directions you would not have gone.  While freedom may seem the best method, constraints actually force us to come up with ways to make connections.

Q: Is there a good way to do knowledge management?
A: Most companies are very unhappy with their knowledge management systems because it's hard to use the keyword search system to have something go from one context to another.  An aspect of a bicycle cable that could be used for guitar strings would never show up in a knowledge management systems because they use different keywords.  That's where you need the serendipity in the system.

Q: What kinds of people are best to have if you want creativity and innovation?
A: The best people to bring into your team are T-shaped people.  They have depth and expertise, but they are also dilettantes across a broad range.

Q: How can companies adapt promotion/tenure/raise systems in a world that respects collaboration and eschews the myth the lone genius?
A: The trick is to build the right incentive system [and not to use some of those lone-genius-based systems]. If you don't get the incentives right, you are not going to get creativity and innovation.  (Keith has a whole workshop on incentive systems that there wasn't time to present at FEI.  Contact Keith for more information.)

Q: Speed is always important, and upper management is always demanding quick results, and this can create a lot of anxiety.  How can a company deal with this?
A: Innovation takes time and trust, and senior management needs to accept this.

To find out more, visit: www.keithsawyer.com

Orin C. Davis is a positive psychology researcher and organizational consultant who focuses on enabling people to do and be their best.  His consulting work focuses on maximizing human capital and making workplaces great places to work, and his research focuses on self-actualization, flow, creativity, hypnosis, and mentoring. Dr. Davis is the principal investigator of the Quality of Life Laboratory and the Chief Science Officer of Self Spark. (@DrOrinDavis)

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