This is a fundamental question we face in our daily naming work, and, we think, is a central issue for most companies. How do you nurture the most creative environment: creative isolation or collaborating in teams? We have found in our work that a balance or interplay of these two strategies consistently yields the most interesting results. If the balance swings too much toward individual creative isolation, great work may be created but might reach a dead end, or lead to missed opportunities or a disconnect with project goals. On the other hand, if there is too much emphasis on collaboration, ideas may wither, become recycled, or lack the depth that sustained introspective exploration can bring.
Writing in the New York Times last year (The Rise of the New Groupthink), Susan Cain made a passionate case for introverts and the power of solitude in creative endeavors:
Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They're extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They're not joiners by nature.
Cain goes on to extol the virtues of the often unheralded work performed by creative isolationists by citing the well known example of Apple's two founding fathers:
Culturally, we're often so dazzled by charisma that we overlook the quiet part of the creative process. Consider Apple. In the wake of Steve Jobs's death, we've seen a profusion of myths about the company's success. Most focus on Mr. Jobs's supernatural magnetism and tend to ignore the other crucial figure in Apple's creation: a kindly, introverted engineering wizard, Steve Wozniak, who toiled alone on a beloved invention, the personal computer.
Cain's polemic, as might be expected, unleashed a backlash from proponents of collaboration in letters to the Times (The Key to Creativity: Solitude or Teams?), which make some persuasive counter-arguments. Keith Sawyer writes of scientific and educational research into the value of collaboration,
Decades of scientific research have revealed that great creativity is almost always based in collaboration, conversation and social networks — just the opposite of our mythical image of the isolated genius. And educational research has found that deeper learning results when students participate in thoughtful argumentation and discuss reasons and concepts.
Ed Donovan writes that Cain makes a mistake by conflating true collaboration with "groupthink":
The collaborative process may benefit from the input of individuals who are creative high achievers, but it's not dependent on them; what's required are the actual stakeholders whose concerns are threatened by a conflict or a problem. Collaboration is at a far end of the problem-solving spectrum from mind-numbing, creativity-suppressing groupthink.
And Stephen Bertman refers to earlier civilizations as models of creative collaboration:
The creative balance that Susan Cain seeks between individual and group thinking was sought (and found) almost 25 centuries ago by the ancient Greeks. Treasuring personal introspection, they nurtured the life of the individual human mind that gave birth to the rational quest for truth known as philosophy. But, as the symposiums presided over by Socrates show, the Greeks also recognized the synergistic power of multiple minds working together toward a common goal.
Later, the Library of Alexandria became the world's first think tank as inventive scientists gathered and inspired one another to produce mechanical marvels as dazzling in their own way as the electronic wonders of today.
In the dynamic tension between the individual and the group, the Greeks found the intellectual engine that powered their civilization — and can power ours, if we choose to use it.
On the other hand, some very influential artists and thinkers have been exemplars of the creative isolation approach, showing that Sawyer's "mythical image of the isolated genius" is not quite so mythical, as the following four quotes attest:
"In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone."~Rollo May (1909–1994), American existential psychologist.
"You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet."~Franz Kafka (1883–1924), German-language writer of novels and short stories, regarded by critics as one of the most influential authors of the 20th century.
"Without great solitude no serious work is possible."~Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, and stage designer, and one of the greatest and most influential artists of the 20th century.
"The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone—that is the secret of invention: be alone, that is when ideas are born."~Nikola Tesla (1856–1943), Serbian-American inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, physicist, and futurist best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system.
We have found that creative isolation can lead to some of the best invention, but creative collaboration is necessary to turn invention into action and execution. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs would probably both have had amazing careers as individuals, but Apple could only have been born from the synergistic fusion of their two unique talents and visions. And Tesla may have been the greater genius, but Thomas Edison was more socially adept and able to bring his ideas to a larger audience.
What do you think, and what works best for you company? Use the comments below or in a social media conversation to chime in with your stories of isolation vs. collaboration in a creative environment.