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Keith Sawyer

Keith Sawyer is one of the leading scholars on creativity, collaboration and learning. He is author of several books including the best sellers ‘Explaining Creativity’ and ‘Group Genius’. Working in the creative field I was surprised to find out that many creativity people (including myself) use misconceptions about how novel ideas originate and creativity works. I interviewed Keith to learn more about his thoughts and research. 


Ruben: In your book ‘Group Genius’ you make a eulogy of collaborative work. All great inventors build on the work of their predecessors and peers. You call it the collaborative web. You also acknowledge that you are tributary to your own collaborative web that inspired and helped with creating ‘Group Genius’. Yet you are the only writer of the book. Did you consider crowd sourcing as a collaborative option? 

Keith: The book is a collaborative book. Many people did an incredible amount of work, especially the editor. Yet, I’m not generally speaking, a believer of the model wherein books are being created through the Internet. It’s difficult to imagine why someone would put so much time and work in a book that is not his or hers. And as a writer I would have to figure out which editor or co-writer to respect as there would be many more to manage. I can’t see it happening for my own book. The system on how to reward a copyright in a crowd-sourced way is not yet in place on the Internet. For patents, we’re a bit farther along. A firm like Innocentive.com, for example, has figured out a way to handle intellectual property rights.


Ruben: You show that improvising groups, groups that work with no preconceived plan, are extremely creative and successful in finding breakthrough solutions. In the process they make many mistakes with lots of dead ends, products that fail and energy that is unproductive. What’s the value of failure?

Keith: Somewhere in my book I say: ‘fail early, fail often, fail gloriously’. Part of the reason why corporates have difficulties with this notion is because they tend to only approve big projects. So when they think of failure they think of millions of dollars lost. Failure works best when you have small projects and small purses with some money to try out small ideas. Then you’ll get small failures. But it involves a radically different leadership because to have lots of small projects under way, individual workers should be enabled to make small expenditures and test and fail themselves.


Ruben: Talking of leadership… in you book you present ‘The Ten Secrets of the Collaborative Organization’. Those 10 secrets are great. Yet in the pursuit of more innovation, I already see managers get frightened with the idea of having to implement these ten secrets. Businesswise it’s very demanding and risky to keep many irons in the fire, build space for creative conversations, etcetera.

Keith: There are many ways a company can fail. Implementing the Ten Secrets doesn’t mean you should stop doing business as usual. But I agree: there’s tension between the need to continue with what’s successful while at the same time fostering innovation. Harvard University professor Clayton Christensen asks himself why smart managers do keep failing to see the next big thing. He says it’s because old business is profitable, so making a new successful business case is extremely difficult. The new product or service will at start never be as successful as the old one is now. And then suddenly you’ve missed it. Look at Kodak that just went bankrupt, or for an older example Xerox PARC. Those companies did not manage that tension well.


Ruben: Then how do you make managers fit for innovative organisations?

Keith: First of all it may be difficult to implement the transition. Initiative should come from the CEO with a long sustained effort. Many traditional managers will refuse to change. And that’s because the older reward system does not reward innovation. The culture of most organisations does not accept creativity. Not being creative is part of the system. There are of course examples of great transitions. SEMCO, a Brazilian company, was very patriarchal. And when the son took the reigns he redid the whole company and created a highly collaborative environment. SEMCO is hugely successful now.


Ruben: Could it have been a miserable failure?

Keith: If so, I don’t think it would be because of fostering collaboration and innovative practices. If you implement collaboration well then I would predict success.


Ruben: What about organising innovation away from the core business processes?

Keith: Many companies do something like that with R&D divisions. These divisions are charged with coming up with new ideas. But the challenge is this: how to hand off the innovations to the rest of the organisation. That’s why I also advocate embedding small innovation spaces within the core businesses of an organisation. The innovation lab is a good example. You create an innovation space and people from the whole organisation fly in for a short amount of time to develop new ideas. Other organisations allot time for the workers to pursue speculative new ideas.


Ruben: How do you deal with the ego? In improvised groups the ego needs to blend in with the group in order to build well upon the ideas by others. My experience working with professional groups is that egos are very difficult to contain and control.

Keith: It’s true, it would require an education effort in learning to collaborate, share and listen. In Improvisational Theatre you have an immediate feedback loop so you immediately notice when someone’s ego interferes, when someone uses his or hers preconceived ideas. In companies you don’t have that quick feedback, so there’s no simple answer to that question. One of them is to change the incentive systems. Organisations usually have systems in place rewarding individuals for each of their good ideas. Those systems are short-sighted, because they reinforce an ownership mentality; people become possessive about their own ideas. You’re less likely to collaborate if you are rewarded individually. So you need incentives that foster collaboration. Rewarding individuals equally is one of them.


Ruben: And what about the free riders?

Keith: They have to be managed well, mainly through the organisation’s culture. You have to organise it in such a way that there is no way to hide. Having regular individual reviews could work well.


Ruben: You show that deadlines block creativity. But in change theory, many scholars and consultants explain that you need urgency for people to change, to move. For want of a better instrument, this urgency is often translated into deadlines. How should organisations deal with this paradox?

Keith: You have to allow for a solution to emerge. For example in Improvisational Theatre your partner on stage says something and you have to respond to that. There’s a second to second immediacy that allows for the emergent process to unfold. And that’s totally different than putting deadlines in a creative process. When you don’t have routine procedures in place you have to go through certain phases. And you can put deadlines on that, but you need experience to be able to judge what good deadlines are and what not. Otherwise you kill the emergent nature of the creative process.


Ruben: There is still a lot of work to do for our organisations to become truly innovative and use their full creative potential! Thank you very much.

Keith: Thank you too!

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