If you want to create a culture in which people generously pool their ideas and think as one, then you’d better not hire any geniuses. That was the message from Davos, courtesy of Tim Brown: CEO of global design consultancy Ideo.

In a panel discussion organised by business journal Fast Company, Brown poured cold water on the notion that creative geniuses can deliver the qualities that will enable organisations to survive for the long haul. As the journal recounts in a 25 January article, [1] Brown told his fellow panellists that his aversion to geniuses is hardwired into Ideo’s recruitment policy.

“One of the things we do,” he explained, “is we essentially filter those folks out … they don’t fit in our culture.” Brown conceded the point that creative innovation comprises “such a rich ecosystem, and there’s certainly room for individual artists.” However, he noted, the question of whether or not they would perform effectively in a group setting comes down to “how they’re driven” – and he cautioned the audience against “trying to force [geniuses] into a collaborative approach that doesn’t suit their drive.”

Brown has ventured into some controversial territory, here. In an October 2017 piece for The Guardian, Wellcome Trust director Sir Jeremy Farrar took a position that is recognisably aligned with Brown’s, arguing: “If we rely too heavily on the narrative that science is the history of great men and – too seldom – great women, we underestimate how much of it is a result of team work and partnerships. Today, even in the individual labs of most leading scientists, the results are invariably born of a joint effort.” [2]

The following month, however, business author Geoffrey James penned a column at Inc.com arguing: “It's impossible to think ‘out of the box’ when you're stuck inside a box with a bunch of other people.” James claimed that “substantial scientific evidence” suggests that, rather than spurring creativity, collaboration “results in groupthink and mediocrity”. He asked: “What does result in creativity? Simple: solitude.” [3]

Who’s on the right track here?

The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “The notion of the individual heroically creating or saving an organisation is one that is increasingly being challenged – and the role of genius is now facing a similar reappraisal. After Dr Meredith Belbin unveiled his Team Roles model in the early 1980s, [4] his research team invited executives to attend very long, residential periods of management training – an approach that soon took off at other, big-brand business schools. One of the standout exercises was a business game, in which the researchers administered a host of personality and intelligence tests in order to detect so-called ‘geniuses’.”

Cooper explains: “Those researchers thought that they’d got it sussed: ‘We’ll put all these people together and surely greatness will follow – because a collective of great minds is what’s required to solve the complex problems that emerge in the pursuit of ambitious goals.’ Of course, the researchers found to their dismay that these high-functioning individuals couldn’t work together. And that’s what Tim Brown is alluding to: you can’t say to an individual, ‘You’re really clever – we love your ideas, and that’s the limit of our expectations of you.’ Because so often, ideas that are sparked by individuals grow and morph into new shapes as they are discussed within wider groups. That’s the process of co-creation – and it’s a willingness to share ownership of ideas that makes for a great team.”

She notes: “At a recent Institute event at the Shard, our companion Charles Hampden-Turner highlighted the tensions that are so often unleashed by creative people. Containing those tensions, or moving past them, or using them to drive action rather than enforce stasis, very much derives from a respect for the wisdom of difference. Yes, if someone isn’t challenging the thinking of a group, then the group isn’t being sufficiently challenged. But to locate that responsibility in an individual – saying either, ‘We want that person, even though we know they’re going to upset us,’ or ‘We don’t want to be upset, so we’re not going to include that person’ – doesn’t really solve the dilemma of how to avoid groupthink.”

Cooper stresses: “It is possible to collaborate while having individuals within the group who are particularly creative and think differently. That is absolutely manageable, as long as you have processes – and respect – in place that will facilitate the most open and constructive interpretation of that model. Contributions should be seen as part of an overall, collective input, rather than quests for personal glory that may be under threat if they mingle with, or are modified by, the thoughts of others.”

She adds: “One requires a certain maturity of conversation to accommodate difference. And collaboration is all about bringing together different methods, viewpoints, ideas and worldviews to collectively – and synergistically – produce outcomes that are better than what you had before.”

For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, download The Institute’s recent report Building Collaborative Capacity

Source refs: [1] [2] [3] [4]


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