The Importance of the ‘Collide and Meet’
There’s a really interesting article on The New Yorker magazine site titled Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth by Jonah Lehrer. He reports that when Steve Jobs designed the Pixar headquarters, he designed it so that “Everybody has to run into each other.” He said that the best creativity happens when people collide and meet. So mailboxes were moved to the lobby and everything else, including the only bathrooms, were placed in the center of the building.
Darla Anderson, a Pixar producer, told Lehrer: “[Steve] really believed that the best meetings happened by accident, in the hallway or parking lot. And you know what? He was right. I get more done having a cup of coffee and striking up a conversation or walking to the bathroom and running into unexpected people than I do sitting at my desk.”
Reading this I thought, can there be a better recommendation for going to conferences that that? SIPA’s Annual Conference takes place May 20-22 in Washington, D.C., and if you go, one thing is guaranteed: you will collide and meet with attendees everywhere. The thesis of Lehrer’s article is one that I’ve written about before in this space. That brainstorming as we know it doesn’t work. It’s too soft and stifling. In a study conducted by Charlan Nemeth, a professor at the University of California at Berkely, teams of female undergraduate students were divided into three types: brainstorm nicely with no criticism; brainstorm freewheelingly with debate, criticism and a say-anything attitude; and no ground rules at all. The teams that criticized each other’s ideas and debated, were, by far, the most creative.
Said Nemeth: “There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings. Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”
That—let’s go so far to call it a—clash of ideas seems to be the key. I spoke with Tom Pines yesterday, the CEO of Real Magnet, and he told me how he and Mitch Eisen started the company 10 years ago after a creation of theirs called The Prediction Machine kind of reached its selling limit. (They provided TV stations with an online contest that led viewers to the station’s website every week.) “[Mitch and I] had a two-day meeting to find something else,” Tom said. “We had been sending emails out twice a week for this and decided to try to expand on that.”
You can bet that Mitch, who is a technology guy, and Tom did not just agree with each other during that meeting. This was their livelihoods they were discussing. Similarly, Lehrer cites a study by Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern, who chose Broadway musicals to determine how people work best. Successful musicals require the ultimate group thinks, he reasoned. He found that the best partnerships were of people who had worked together a little but not too much. So there was comfort but not sameness. And a new person in the mix usually helped. His prime example: when legends Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents teamed up for West Side Story, it was 20-something lyricist Stephen Sondheim who helped them create greatness.
There are also numerous sports examples where two strong figures worked together to bring championships to a city. One then becomes more powerful, the other leaves and you don’t have that dissent—or success—anymore. Lehrer finishes his article by talking about Building 20 at M.I.T. Built in the early 1940s, it was initially deemed a failure because of poor construction and ventilation. But then ground-breaking work started emerging from Building 20 including radar systems that helped win WWII. What studies found was that the old, open space forced solitary scientists to mix and mingle. Room dividers were often torn down. Said one linguistics scholar about his friend and colleague next to him: “What am I supposed to do? Not tell him he’s got a bad idea?”
“The fatal misconception behind brainstorming is that there is a particular script we should all follow in group interactions,” writes Lehrer. “…The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction that makes the sparks.” This defines what good associations try to do and, more specifically, the SIPA Annual Conference. See you there.
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