Mad Scientists and Creativity Labs

Managing solitary and collaborative innovation: All innovation is based on creative ideas which are generated and developed by passionate people working alone and with others. Both solitary and collaborative work are important to the effective development of innovation in organizations. The key for leaders is to effectively promote both.

The Mad Scientist

The mad scientist has highly original ideas. Some are pretty weird. Many of them won’t work. He really knows his stuff. He loves what he does. He works odd hours. He works best alone. He hates meetings. He has unusual hobbies. Being different is high on his set of values.

The caricature (and it is a caricature) is of a highly creative individual (and it is not necessarily a “he” or a “scientist”). Beyond the caricature are individuals who engage in radical thinking, the type that leads to breakthroughs. They will imagine new futures, open new paths. These people are very valuable assets for the organizations that accept and develop them.

Many organizations, however, may find it difficult to accept people whose ideas and, by extension, lifestyles and attitudes at work are non-conformist. Corporate rules may not be flexible enough to accommodate the styles of mavericks. Managers may be reluctant to tolerate highly individualistic behaviors that could threaten collaboration and team spirit.

Both solitary and collaborative work are important to the effective development of innovation.

The Creativity Lab

In the creativity lab people do creative work together. They brainstorm. They share. They have common goals. They evaluate and re-evaluate. They test their ideas. They set roles and tasks. They are committed. They hold each other accountable. They set deadlines and try to stick to them. They take action. They debrief. They monitor progress. They take pride in good communication. Co-ordination is high on their set of values. So is camaraderie. They may have a name for their group, a motto and even a common chant.

This caricature (it is also a caricature) is of good quality teamwork. Organizations are born of collaboration and they cannot survive without it. Supporting good teamwork and the culture that will help it flourish are non-negotiable facts of organizational life. It is not wrong to assert that all innovation is the outcome of collaboration.

At the same time, as anyone who has been to a boring meeting will testify, collaborative work has its limitations. It can be time-wasting, even counter-productive. It can lead to social loafing and groupthink. It can kill good ideas. Not all crowds have wisdom.

Individuals and teams for innovation

Both solitary creation and co-creation are value-adding and it is helpful to consider how each mode of creative activity best delivers innovative outcomes (Andre Walton, “Resolving the Paradox of Group Creativity”, Harvard Business Review, 25 January 2016). Understanding that ideas have a life-cycle – they go through stages of development before going live – is important.

An idea is generated by someone, somewhere, it is evaluated in depth, compared to other, alternative ideas, and if selected an action plan is designed and implemented. Only then has the idea become innovation. In a contemporary organization no single person alone can carry out all the stages. The stage of idea generation owes a lot to individuals especially when the search is for rare, breakthrough ideas and deadlines are loose. On the other hand many small, valuable ideas of the incremental sort do come out quickly and efficiently in a group ideation meeting with a strict deadline.

Doing it alone

When answering the question “when do you get your best ideas?” people will often say “when I’m asleep”, as soon as I wake up”, “when I take a walk”, “when I’m washing the dishes”, “when I take a shower”, “when I’m at an airport” etc. Only occasionally will they mention a group activity and they will rarely say “at work”.

Most radical, game-changing ideas are generated individually. However deliberate the quest for solutions may be, great insights often strike at unexpected moments – the walk in the woods or the shower or … – and after a period of incubation (Graham Wallas “The Art of Thought”, 1926.) The precious associations and combinations that happen right before, during and right after sleep cannot be reproduced in the office. The noise and interruption, sometimes even the mere physical presence of other people may impede creativity. (For a summary of classical texts on individual idea generation see a 12-slide show by Dimis Michaelides “EUREKA! How great ideas are generated”.)

The very process of idea generation managed by a facilitator, which is so necessary for successful group ideation, may not always sit well with what is happening in each individual’s brain. The mad scientist, may have a storm in his brain, but he does not thrive in a brainstorm. However his ideas will not see the light of day if he stays alone.

Doing it with others

Brainstorming – a group method for idea generation pioneered by Alex Osborn – has been cheered and maligned from the day its originator set the norms for making it work (Alex Osborn “Applied imagination: principles and procedures of creative problem solving.” Buffalo: Creative Education Foundation, 1964). In a nutshell, brainstorming is situated within a multi-stage problem-solving process – understanding the context, defining the problem, solving the problem, implementing the best solution. At each stage teams should actively practice divergent thinking first (generating ideas in quantity and without judgment) followed by convergent thinking (selecting the best ideas).

Most people have at some point taken part in a brainstorm with a disappointing outcome. This is often because people do not apply Osborn’s norms, or because they are poorly facilitated, or because they set unreasonable expectations from the brainstorm. It is rare to get a breakthrough idea from a brainstorming session first, because breakthrough ideas are rare and second, because they are more often generated by individuals working alone. The innovation lab has its advantages as well as its limits. (Gerard Puccio, “Team” in “Encyclopedia of Creativity” edited by Mark Runcio and Steven Pritzker, Academic Press, 1999)

Before and after idea generation

Preparing the ground for new ideas before they are even articulated and following up on them after, are activities best done collaboratively. In this way challenges and action plans are shared and co-owned and ideas grows with many improvements offered by team members. The creativity lab is very valuable here.

A solitary ideator has every interest in participating and calling on the support of colleagues. Besides benefitting from other’s suggestions, he will find selling them easier with the support of a team. The creativity lab must act not as a restraint to radical individual ideas, but as a booster.

The creativity lab must act not as a restraint to radical individual ideas, but as a booster.

How to maximize the potential of mad scientists and creativity labs

Leaders should create the conditions for both individual and team creativity to flourish. Here are some practical guidelines.

  • First, organizations should expect all individuals to work on new ideas, both individually and in teams. There should be personal and group incentives, not necessarily monetary, for both. Work on ideas (exploration, ideation, implementation) should be explicitly integrated in individual performance reviews. And leaders would do well to systematically organize and monitor team sessions to address shared challenges.
  • Second, when working on a specific challenge, especially at the idea generation stage team leaders and facilitators should alternate between individual and team creativity. For this collaborative software can offer great benefits allowing people to work at their own time to provide their ideas as well as consult and comment on those of others.
  • Third, training in creativity should incorporate a range of methods and techniques – for individuals, pairs, trios and larger groups. Luckily techniques abound for all modes of creativity.
  • Fourth, the organization should ensure the physical conditions for both personal and group work are in place. A team that wants to meet should be able to do it any time. An individual wishing to work alone should be able to do so too. The availability of multiple spaces is important. Architecture and office can do a lot to shape culture (Ben Waber, Jennifer Magnolfi and Greg Lindsay “Workspaces that Move People”, Harvard Business Review, October 2014). Google’s much publicized HQ is a case in point.
  • Fifth, there should be plenty of flexibility in time and place. Where possible people should be allowed to work from wherever they like and whenever they like, provided collaboration and client contact are not compromised. When this is not possible due to the nature of the work, it would be great to offer some time for people to innovate alone and with others.

In their creative endeavors, individuals surely have their own personal preferences, with some leaning towards solitary work and others towards collaboration. In fact it is best if people do both, even if they do so in different proportions depending on their individual style. Maximizing individual and team contributions to the innovation process is much about encouraging each mode of creativity to flourish and ensuring their interface is harmonious and fruitful. Encouraging both independence and sociability should then be a permanent practical objective for leaders.

By Dimis Michaelides

About the author

Keynote speaker, consultant and trainer in leadership, creativity and innovation. His model for innovation was published in his book The Art of Innovation and followed by Leading Innovation in Practice, a roadmap for innovation in organizations. Dimis has extensive international experience at Director or Executive level in international private companies and public organizations. As a speaker, he provides audiences with out-of-the-ordinary experiences through his original material and use of magic.