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Collecting Our Thoughts on Collective Creativity

Collecting Our Thoughts on Collective Creativity

Marsha Dunn's picture
Marsha Dunn
February 10th, 2017

Collective Creativity Collaboration Facilitation

We kicked off the year promising to deconstruct the process of meaningful change. We offered up a “Cycle of Meaningful Change” based on three interrelated concepts: design, engage, and develop. And we noted that meaningful change requires designing strong and intentional solutions to address business challenges. In the series kicked-off below, we turn to the process of designing such solutions, a process which relies on collective creativity.

What do the salons of 18th century Paris and the format of molecular biology lab meetings in the 1990’s have to do with the culture of your organization? How is the leadership model at Pixar or eBay Germany relevant to your company’s oft-thwarted quest for innovation? The answer in the first instance: “liquid networks”; and in the second: “collective genius.”

“Liquid Networks” as a concept originated in Steven Johnson’s best-seller Where Good Ideas Come From. Here, he argues that environment is key to innovation, and the coffee house of the Enlightenment embodies the optimal fluid, interconnected setting, which encourages ideas to gestate, interact, and evolve.

“Collective Genius” is the title of the recent book by Harvard’s Linda Hill, Pixar’s Greg Brandeau, and MIT’s Emily Truelove, et al. Hill and her colleagues make a key distinction between the skills required to lead others in a process of collective innovation and those skills employed by the “great visionary” who does all the innovating him or herself and imposing on the organization from on high.

We at Collective Next have a great deal in common with both Johnson’s and Hill’s approach to achieving an organization’s next path-breaking ideas. Like these authors we’ve long been exploring the conditions that solve for the inherent paradoxes of collective creativity. The two central paradoxes we’ve identified can be simply stated as follows: a) collective innovation happens only when both individual and collective genius thrive simultaneously; b) collective creativity emerges only when a balance of structure and spontaneity is preserved. We at Collective Next have been helping organizations pull off this balancing act for years, and we’ve learned some lessons in the process.

Individual and Collective Creativity: For us the notion of collective creativity, a notion inextricably linked to collaboration and innovation, is rooted in two principles. First, the more stakeholders successfully involved in generating the insights that drive organizational change, the more likely it is to be meaningful and sustainable. Second, ensuring this broad based participation involves a codified approach. The final form that this structured approach takes is not one size fits all. However, it must establish conditions that harness both what Hill et al. call individual “slices of genius” as well as capturing the diverse knowledge and experience of the group.

Spontaneity and Structure: There is no single formula for guaranteeing the emergence of real creativity or sustainable innovation in all contexts. The fact that there is no single formula, no reproducible checklist, is exactly what makes creativity so difficult to achieve and thus such a great commodity.

Counterintuitively, when you recognize that creativity is not at your beck and call, you actually increase your chances of finding it sauntering into the room. This is so because when you let go of trying to control creativity directly, you can focus your energy on creating the set of conditions that increase the likelihood of collective creativity showing up – on its own terms. This is what we at Collective Next mean by “facilitation” in a maximal sense. We aim to facilitate the conditions in which innovation, and meaningful change can arrive and flourish. This type of facilitation is critical in an organizational context for two reasons: First, businesses must be able to exercise control over the timing and repeatability of creative thinking. Second, collective as opposed to individual creativity requires harnessing multiple players and viewpoints.

Over the course of this series, we will explore the ways in which organizations can facilitate collective creativity through a shared purpose, process, environment and smart leadership. To get more specific about what each of these terms can mean, in this series we will glean insights from outside the business world and we will also seek to understand how collective creativity can and does function in an organizational environment and why it is so critical.


Collective Creativity