David Burkus [ GoogleTalk ] The weird thing about writing a book is you learn things after you publish it. After you send it to the publisher people then start discussing you. And you realize that, I set out to write a business book, or I thought I was writing a business book.
I found I’ve written a book that has I hope a little bit broader implications for how we rethink things.
It’s this one sentence that I didn’t really figure out until after I had published, which was, the stories we tell ourselves are true, even if they’re not true. The things that we tell ourselves are true even if they’re totally false, even if they have no basis in reality. Because if we tell it to ourselves enough we eventually start to believe it.
There’s a psychological principle called confirmation bias that confirms this.
What confirmation bias essentially does is it says that you filter out things that don’t conform to what you already believe . And you willfully seek out things that will conform to what you already believe . It will confirm your beliefs. So, you probably have realized this.
If you’ve ever been car shopping you have found confirmation bias at work, right. Who has been car shopping recently? And what kind of car did you decide on?
AUDIENCE: A Ram 1500.
DAVID BURKUS: A Ram 1500. How many RAM 1500s did you see shortly after you bought it?
AUDIENCE: Oh, a lot.
DAVID BURKUS: They’re all over the place, right? And it’s not like anything changed, I mean, unless you decided to drive through Texas after you bought it. It’s not like anything changed. It’s still a Ram 1500. There were still just as many on the street as before. But your mind is drawing attention and flagging and signaling you when it’s there.
And interestingly, the things that you chose not to buy, it sort of just fades to the background.
Now if you really, really want to get a taste of this wait until this fall, because we have an election season coming up. And this is when confirmation bias is on display for the world to see. So if you still don’t believe in the Ram 1500 example, get into a political argument with someone who thinks differently than you on some social network, via Twitter, Google+, Facebook, whatever. It has to be a social network because it has to be asynchronous .
You have to give them time to find some blog that supports their world view and then come back to you.
It can’t be a face to face discussion because then it’ll be like human and you’ll find common ground. We don’t want that. We’re showing confirmation bias at work. But what eventually happens is the stories that we tell ourselves become true because of confirmation bias. And this happened in this case with this book. I used the term myths because myths are stories. And myths are stories that we make up to try and explain things that we can’t really explain fully.
And what happens over time is those myths become true, even if they’re not true.
So I set out, actually, to write a leadership book. I did my Doctoral work on strategy and leadership. And I set out wanting to know, what is it that the leaders of amazingly creative organizations do that other people don’t do. And it came down to this idea of stories. And it really– the deep dark secret– it wasn’t all that much about the actual leader. It was just about what are the stories that people are telling themselves. So we tell a lot of different stories, lots and lots of different stories. One of my favorites is, if you pay attention to the way we describe creativity, we tell an almost religious story around creativity.
It almost feels like it’s some religion.
And if you go to certain parts of the world– San Francisco, Austin, Texas, parts of New York– creative people actually look like priests of some near eastern religion you’ve never heard of. Piercings, tattoos, things that you’re like, wow, you really could be a guru on a mountain somewhere. But you’re a barista. But you know what I mean. So we talk about it in these weird, almost religious terms. And I think we do that to our detriment. Because in reality it’s something that’s sort of accessible to everyone. So we talk about creativity like it’s a gift from the gods. We talk about innovation like it happens in a flash.
In reality it’s actually a little simpler to explain.
I can do it with a picture.
So a woman by the name of Teresa Amabile did this amazing series of research and came up with what she calls the Confidential Model of Creativity . Which essentially says, every creative insight happens when four things are at play together. Now I already know what you’re thinking because I see people’s eyes. There are only four circles on the slide. We’ll get to that. So four things essentially in play, expertise, creative thinking, skills, and motivation . Expertise, you actually have to know something about where you want a creative insight in. Interestingly enough, too much expertise can sometimes be a bad thing.
We’ll get to that.
Creative thinking skills.
Do you actually know the processes, especially in groups, for coming up with lots of great ideas? Or are you just sort of winging it? Or are you throwing yourself in a room and doing what we call brainstorming but looks nothing like what its creator intended? So creative thinking skills, I think, we have a hard time thinking that expertise, in particular, and creative thinking skills are two different circles. Most of the time we use this term creatives a lot. We use this term creatives. We describe advertising copy as creative copy now. And what I think is interesting about that is that’s actually merging these creative thinking skills with expertise. But you can use creative thinking skills and, even in fields of expertise, that no one would call creative, like accounting. Now sometimes you do that at the detriment of the world.
But, I mean, I use mint.com every single day. It’s an amazingly creative product.
So the last one is motivation. And intrinsic motivation is generally better than extrinsic motivation, things like bonuses and incentives. But there are things we can do to structure and align those two to actually have an even more powerful force. But in general intrinsic motivation works really well. It’s often been said necessity is the mother of invention. I’d say necessity is the mother innovation. Why? Necessity is a really good intrinsic motivator.
If you have a problem that desperately needs to be solved, you have a lot of motivation to solve said problem. Now three circles, four components. The fourth component is the social environment. What is the environment in which you are actually operating in? Is it generally supportive of new and creative ideas? Does it squelch ideas? Does it support idea sharing? Does it support what a friend of mine calls little bets? Does it support the idea of taking lots of little risks, deferring judgment? All of these sort of things help shape a social environment that can harbor creativity.
And what I think is interesting is when I think about the perfect social environment, I actually think about a kindergarten classroom. Does anyone have kindergartners or younger kids?
I have a two-year-old and a two month old, which means we’re looking at the beginner programs– preschool programs, working our way up. And if you go in and visit a kindergarten, you’ll see a classroom of 25 people and maybe four really, really frazzled looking teachers. But you’ll see 25 kids, little people. All of them are incredibly creative. I teach college most days out of the year, and when I get a classroom of 25 students, if I asked them if they think they’re creative, two of them will raise their hand. And both of them are marketing majors. That doesn’t even count because they just think they’re giving me the right answer.
So we go from 25 to two.
And I just think this is incredibly depressing. And the reason that we do is that the social environment changes. As you move through life you become more and more aware of the fact that not everyone loves your crazy, off the wall ideas. And eventually it becomes easier to just not bring them up . You learn that regurgitating the right answer back to a teacher is just easier. And even if you have a very forward thinking, progressive school, we still have a society that doesn’t really value creative, new ideas. And we’ll talk about that at the tail end because I think that’s the most devastating story that we tell ourselves.
But again, to go with this idea that the stories we tell ourselves are true, there’s a lot of stories I’ve found that we tell ourselves around creative people, creative companies, that we use to discount ourselves.
One of my favorites is this Eureka story. And I’m indebted to a lot of people. I’m not the first person that’s taken aim at the Eureka story. One of the most fascinating examples of this is Newton and the apple. How many people have ever heard the story of Newton and the apple? Tell it to me, Newton and the apple. So Isaac Newton is sitting under an apple tree. What happens? Apple falls. Isaac Newton discovers gra– no. Does something related to gravity, right. Great story. Great lesson for aspiring, creative people. What’s the lesson? Sit under a tree and wait for stuff to happen. Now, I can tell you because I’ve searched lots and lots of sources.
The Story is not actually true.
There’s a version of the story very similar to it that does involve an apple that has already hit the ground and Isaac Newton talking about apples. But the actual hitting never– we can’t source that story. Over time, of course, so Isaac’s over here and he’s talking about the apple falling to the ground. Over time we retell the story. And the apple levitates and Isaac moves closer to it and eventually we arrive at this moment.
And it’s a good story. But the lesson is a terrible one.
I don’t have time to sit under apple trees and wait for stuff to happen. But again, if you remember, myths are things we tell ourselves because they sort of feel true and then the confirmation bias takes over. So there is some truth to the story. And fortunately a researcher by the name of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose name is so awesome you should say it any time you get a chance. It’s like plus 10 on perceived IQ if you can say it . So he did this amazing study where he surveyed outstandingly creative, renowned creative people in a variety of different fields. Essentially he asked lots of different people in different fields, who do you admire? And then when they sort of aggregated around a name, he went out and sought that person out. And he just asked them, describe to me your creative process.
And then he did sort of a qualitative factor analysis.
And he arrived at, everybody’s creative process, as he described it, goes through these five different stages. So we start out with preparation . This is where you’re doing research on the problem. You’re gaining expertise. And then most people who have these insights go into a period of incubation. So they actually set it aside. They don’t just plow right through the problem and try and prepare and prepare and prepare until they arrive at a solution.
They take some time off.
They grab a Google bike and they go for a ride sometimes. They sit under an apple tree sometimes. More often than not they actually just switch projects. So while one project is incubating they’re working on a different one . And so sometimes you can move into the third stage, which is that insight. That’s the aha moment. And sometimes it really does happen directly out of incubation. So if you think about a story like Newton and the apple, Archimedes in the bathtub, I think there probably was some sort of aha moment. He was incubating and then it came to him. And then gradually over time the story just gets better if you merge those two events. And we’ve all had those moments, right? We think about it.
My best ideas come to me in the shower or when I’m jogging or when I’m doing something that forces that incubation.
But the thing I think is really interesting is you can deliberately incubate . And when you get done with an incubation period you can deliberately set back to it. So research supports the idea that if you work on a problem for a while, then you incubate, then you return and do something like a brainstorming or an ideation technique, you will generate more and better ideas because you spent that time incubating. So a lot of times I get asked, great, but how do I do that? And one of the things that I’ve started doing is, I use email as a form of incubation . Because most of the emails I get are not important. No offense. But there are things like, come to this address at this time. There are things like, hey can you confirm this meeting? They’re just little things that I need to click through.
They’re not all that important.
And so I turned on my phone. I turned off all of my notifications around email. My email on my computer does not automatically update. It does it when I do it. And I do it when I need to take a little break, when I need to feel or look productive. And I need to take a little bit of a break and then I need to return to what I’m working on. A lot of times I’ll write a piece. I’ll write an article. Then I’ll check email. Then I’ll return to the article.
And then if I have enough time, if I didn’t wait till the last minute, I’ll actually print it out, wait a day, and read it again.
But most of the time it’s write it, email, proof read it. And I find that it actually sort of works. You get newer ways to phrase things just by taking that little bit of time off. So the question isn’t sit under an apple tree and wait for something to happen. The question is, how can I structure into my workflow these actual periods of incubation ? Now I know what some people are doing. They’re looking at the fourth and fifth egg and going, OK, I already want to know what those are. You’re the same people who wanted to know about the circles. It’s the fourth and fifth egg. Evaluation, you actually have to judge whether or not the idea is good.
And then you have to elaborate on it.
You have two externalize it, you have to bring it out into the world. All right, so those are all parts of the process. But what I think is really interesting are stages two and three because most of the time those are not in our normal work rhythm. We don’t actually work in this idea of how can I incubate to get better ideas. So one of the other myths that I think is particularly devastating is this breed myth. I joked about it earlier with my Near Eastern guru barista. But a lot of times when we describe creativity or creative people we say things like, oh, they’re just naturally a good whatever. Which is sort of a damaging thing for two reasons. Assuming it were true would be great. But it’s not. It’s damaging for two reasons because what you’re doing is you’re essentially, presumably, taking yourself off the hook.
They’re just a natural blank. I’m not.
Therefore I don’t have to work hard. The other thing you’re doing is you’re insulting that person because they worked ridiculously hard to get to the point where you called them a natural, which is a little insulting. And we’ve tried hard to verify this breed myth. We’ve looked at a lot of different places. We looked at genetics. We looked at personality. Personality essentially, there are five personality traits, the Big Five. And we’ve tried to correlate every type of creative expression to personality types. Can’t do it. Actually, one of the Big Five is called openness to experience. And that correlates a little bit, which kind of makes sense.
If you’re open to new ideas and new experiences you’ll be more creative. That makes sense. The rest of them don’t correlate. Introverts are just as creative as extroverts , All of that.
The other thing we tried to do is genetics. We’ve looked at studies of identical and fraternal twins. We’ve compared them to each other, to the baselines. We can’t find anything that suggests there’s a creativity gene or creativity combination of genes. The way that I describe it is that nature has yet to disprove nurture. But some of us still love to believe in the idea of nature, because if somebody drew an incredibly creative genetic hand and I didn’t, I’m off the hook. It’s over.
I think this also has lessons for how we perceive interactions with other people. Because if we think that some people are naturally creative, when we need an idea who do we gravitate to? But who do we need to be gravitating to? Probably everybody. And especially the people who aren’t necessarily experts in that field. And we’ll talk about that in a little bit. But first, let’s take a pause around this expertise idea. One of the things I think is interesting is, expertise is sort of a double edged sword. Because there’s this idea around originality and creativity, that creative ideas are incredibly original. And so if they’re incredibly original then you need tons of outsiders and you need no experts. And that’s not actually true because almost all new ideas are combinations of preexisting ideas. In no place is this more aware than in software, right? It’s why we have so many intellectual property debates, is where is the line between copying and infringing and true original things.
But we see it everywhere.
Anybody in here a fan of “Star Wars”? I know, it’s sort of a trick question. I know, I know. So “Star Wars” is an incredibly wonderful combination of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces” mono-myth plot line, some Akira Kurosawa samurai films, some spaghetti westerns, and then a couple “Flash Gordon” and “Sinbad” movies thrown in just for good measure. A lot of people say it this way, it’s a total remix. And that’s OK, because it’s a very original remix. And it’s a very wonderful set.
And it’s probably going to be ruined with the next three. But whatever, right? The original one is still a great combination. We do this in music all of the time. We do this in literature all of the time. Mark Twain actually has this amazing quote about how the entire concept of plagiarism is a farce because no writer just sat down and wrote and came up with anything worth reading. Instead they studied all sorts of other works. And they incorporated different ideas and techniques.
And their voice is really just an original combination of their influences. Music, I think, at least has a little bit of intellectual honesty around this idea. Because you can ask a musician, who are your influences. And that’s code for who did you listen to a lot of times and who did you copy . And that’s OK as long as you copy too. I teach college so one source is plagiarism but multiple, that’s just research . Right? So it’s cool. It’s about those sort of combinations. And what I find is really interesting is your brain is actually wired to do this. Your brain is designed to combine. So your brain is essentially two fundamental structures.
And this, I have to apologize to a gentleman named Rex Jung who I borrowed a lot of insights from and probably ruined with gross oversimplifications . Because he is a neuroscientist and a neurosurgeon. And I’m a management professor and a writer. So I’m probably not describing this perfectly but it works. So your brain essentially has two things, gray matter and white matter. Gray matter is that spongy stuff we think about when we think about thoughts. It’s kind of what we think about when we look at an image like this. And gray matter is where your thoughts are stored. But then there’s this other white matter that’s like strings, almost like wires and cords that connect all these different things. And the way that your brain works is by connecting different areas of gray matter in different times.
One of the most interesting things.
If you ever read an article that says, oh, we have found the spot in your brain responsible for blank. That will be proven out of date within the next 10 years. Because what we’re finding is it’s not about this little area. It’s about combinations of areas in your brain that light up because of the white matter. And right down the center of your brain is a thing called the corpus callosum. And it is the thickest area of white matter in your brain. And it’s the reason we thought about this left brain, right brain thing, and why they need it to communicate. In truth that whole analogy is coming out of vogue, because we’re understanding that this white matter is incredibly important. Because the white matter connects different ideas. So if the gray matter is what you think, the white matter is almost how you think, because it’s the connections . Now this is why if you’ve ever lost your train of thought and you try and redo it, you feel like you’re zig zagging all over the place. It’s because your brain doesn’t think linear .
It thinks in connections.
This can also be used to your benefit. Has anybody watched the BBC version of “Sherlock” where the mind palace idea comes from? It basically comes from connecting a visual image of a house to something you want to remember. It’s not like it’s stored right next to it in the gray matter. It’s that the white matter is firing in that right combination. So our brain is actually wired to combine. And this, I think, has incredible implications for you.
What are you consuming? What are you putting in there?
The more and the more diverse an amount of gray matter you’re putting in, and the more you’re experimenting with original new combinations of that gray matter, the more your white matter could be growing. We don’t actually know for sure, but we do think that white matter is very elastic and it can grow over time with expertise.
There’s actually a factual error in my book. Because before it was published we thought that Albert Einstein’s brain looked like everybody else’s. And now we actually know from some photos of his brain that was, against his wishes, taken out of him after he died. We know from photos that he had a very, very thick corpus collasum. He had an unnatural amount of white matter. We don’t know if he was born with it or if he grew it. The evidence is leaning towards the idea that you can actually grow additional white matter connections. You can strengthen those connections the more you play around with combining ideas.
And I think this has interesting implications because the other side of the coin of this expertise thing is what I actually call the expert myth. That when we have a problem we need to seek out experts. We need to seek out people who have studied the most in their field. And it’s generally a good idea, but it turns out, it kind of falls apart over time. In essence what happens, we’ve studied the careers of lots of different creative professionals, playwrights.
There’s a joke in physics that if you don’t do Nobel Prize winning work by the time you’re 30 you should just retire at least from research. And it’s kind of funny because the aforementioned Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize at 46, but for a paper that was published at 26. And if you look at the ages of when publications that won the Nobel Prize in physics were, the ages of the authors when they were published it, actually does sort of aggregate around 30. There’s some truth to the joke. What’s going on here is that a lot of times as your expertise goes up your creative output can actually go down. It can look like an inverted U instead of just an ever rising screen. The reason for this, we think, is that there’s two parts to an idea.
Remember there’s coming up with the insight. We call that an ideation rate. And then there’s also evaluating it and elaborating on that. We can call that an elaboration rate. And as your expertise grows your ideation rate does go up. But you’re elaboration rate goes down. If you study the careers in a variety of different fields of creative individuals, their elaboration rate goes down over time. What we think is essentially happening is, as they’re coming up with ideas they’re coming up with reasons why not to even bother trying that idea. I have all of this expertise so I know it’s not going to work.
It was a fun idea but it’s not going to work and here’s why. And what happens, I think, in physics or in any other field like that, is that you know around that 30 time you just got out of grad school, maybe you’re in a post-doc. You’re playing around with new ideas. You have enough expertise to be able to come up with new combinations of ideas, but not enough to know it’ll never work. So you test it. And most of the time you waste your time. But every once in a while you find something nobody else bothered to test. And we fly you to Scandinavia. We give you a metal. We tell you you’re amazing. We see this all of the time. And I think this is not a death sentence.
I don’t believe that this is always, everyone who has more expertise always has their creative output go down. Earlier I talked about it. Expertise is a vital part of that creative process. But I think the key is to really take a look at our influences, to be someone like Paul Erdos. Does anyone know who Paul Erdos is? Do I have any mathematicians in the room? Do You have an Erdos number?
DAVID BURKUS: No?
AUDIENCE: No, no, no.
DAVID BURKUS: No, no, no. So he and I just had a conversation, none of you know what we’re talking about. So let me elaborate. So an Erdos number is essentially– Paul Erdos has more peer review publications than anyone ever. We lost count around 1,500. I have like 12. He’s 1,500. 20 will get your tenure anywhere you want. 20 in reputable journals, I should say. 1,500, and the reason was the man was an intellectual nomad. So he would study in his field. And he’d read a paper by somebody who was in a different subset. And he would show up, usually at the office or sometimes the house, of the author of that paper. And he would say “my brain is open.”
He actually has a biography written about him. It’s that title, “My Brain is Open.” And he would move in to the office, sometimes into the house, of that person. And they would work together. And they would share insights. They would publish a couple papers. Then when he got bored he would move on again. So as a result, what you have is an Erdos number. What you have is a number that represents how close you are to have published with Paul Erdos.
If you have an Erdos number one, you published with him. Two, you published with someone who published with him.
It’s like “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”, but for nerds. Actually, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” is also for nerds, just a different kind of nerd. So Paul Erdos is sort of this intellectual nomad that is constantly moving around. And I think we can take that same approach, but so often we don’t. Our area of expertise is really comfortable. And to admit that we don’t have an expertise somewhere and begin to study that is really uncomfortable. It takes a lot of guts to show up at the door of someone else. Especially– think about when Paul Erdos arrived at, oh I don’t know, 600 publications. Think about the kind of courage it takes to show up at the office of somebody with maybe six, but is doing new stuff. And to say, I want to learn from you. That takes a lot of courage to admit that like, I’m not going to play this comfortable expertise card that I have developed over time.
I’m going to take on this beginner’s mindset all over again.
And I think so often we don’t do that, but we can. And when we do that, we think back to the originality myth. We fill our mind with more gray matter and more potential connections. So we fill our mind with more raw material to make combinations out of it. But it takes a little bit of courage. Now, one other way that you can get really good in a very short period of time, like Paul Erdos did, is by collaborating. And we live in a world that’s getting better at collaboration. But we still tell ourselves what I call the Lone Creator Story. We tell ourselves stories about Thomas Edison. Thomas Edison invented the—
AUDIENCE: Light bulb.
DAVID BURKUS: Sort of. Some people are like, I know it’s a trick question so I’m just going to sit there and shake my head. Thomas Edison did. He was the 22nd or 23rd– depending on how you count– person to invent the light bulb. Not bad, not bad, right. His patent for the light bulb is actually called improvements in electric lights. So at least he, like, even he admitted it. But when we think about Thomas Edison, think about his great story about trying thousands of times to try out different filaments. What do you envision? You picture Thomas Edison alone in a room somewhere trying out lots of little different fibers.
But it didn’t happen like that all.
I would submit to you that Thomas Edison’s greatest invention was actually his Menlo Park workshop. He had some of his initial funds from patents in the telegraph industry. And he used that to build a workshop. And he invited sort of, Thomas Edison the Super Friends. They actually called themselves the “Muckers”, but that feels like a dirty word. So I prefer Thomas Edison and the Super Friends. So he invites all of his friends. And there are about 15 to 20 people in there at any given time, working on lots of different stuff. Most of them actually share space on the patents, their name space on the patent with Thomas Edison.
Some of them worked on their own stuff. Some of them worked on projects outside of Edison.
But eventually they actually kind of found out that the money was in promoting this myth of Thomas Edison. Thomas Edison became the marketing mouthpiece of this broader organization. So they basically found a way to take advantage of two things. That we love this lone creator story and that we all benefit from collaboration. Now sadly the damaging thing they did is they propagated this lone creator myth. But they’re also, if you know the truth, they’re a testament to this power of collaboration. And there’s a lot of researchers that are doing work showing, OK, so we know collaboration works.
But how do we do this?
What’s the right level of collaboration? And one of my favorites is a study by two guys, Brian Uzzi and Jarrett Spiro. Sorry, not “Uzi”, Uzzi, like the gun. I had the opportunity to talk to Brian a little while ago much more in depth about his study. And I learned that I’ve been mispronouncing his name for several years. But anyway, so their study looked at Broadway, because Broadway is an interesting ecosystem. To put on a Broadway show you need six people in you’re senior leadership team. You need a composer, a librettist, a lyricist, a choreographer, a director, and a producer. You don’t have to know what all of those things do, but you need all six of them.
And so at any given time you can have a show that has all six people who have worked together before or have been totally new. So you think about red, all new connections, and black, all old connections. So you can have people who have worked together on projects before and be incredibly successful. They’re a super team. Or you can have a team of total newbies and strangers. Now which team would you want to put your money on? Let’s number them.
So like a scale of one to five. You want to put your money on one? You want to put your money on five? of course not. You know it’s a trick question. How many people want to put their money on three? You’re also wrong. 2.6, that’s how you know it’s true. That’s how you know they did proper analysis. It didn’t magically work out to be three. 2.6. So what they found is that in any given year– essentially this 2.6 number is what they call small world quotient.
And it’s representative of how many different combinations in the entire year for Broadway that they had.
They found that the best years for Broadway were when if you graphed this phenomenon, you arrive at a 2.6 on a scale of one to five. And so I said earlier I had a chance to talk to Brian about this study. And one of the questions that I asked him was, hey, I’ve read about your study before and I’m not the first person to write about it. What’s the most frustrating thing about your study that people, when they write about it, that people do? He said the most frustrating thing is that people assume that means we need 2.6 teams, right. We need teams that are at 2.6. Our study is not about that. Our study is about something much broader.
Because they didn’t graph the team. They graphed the network.
So at any given year for Broadway we give it a score of a 2.6 and it’s going to be one of the better years. And that’s a really interesting ramification because here’s the thing if you think about it. A 2.6 team doesn’t stay a 2.6 team for very long. You can arrive at building a 2.6 team, a great combination of old colleagues and new fresh ideas. But it won’t stay that way. Eventually it’ll devolve into a one as people get too experienced.
So the question isn’t how do you find and build a 2.6 team. It’s how do you build a network that allows a 2.6 team to form, and then at the right moment disband. The beautiful thing about a Broadway show is that if it’s not “Cats” it will eventually end. And those connections, those ideas, they will all go to a different show. So how do you structure a company, how do you structure an organization, how do you structure a society that allows for those connections to be made and then disband after the mission is complete? Now that’s an interesting question. And we could think about it at an organizational level.
How do we do this in a company?
But I think much easier and much more important is to think about it on your own individual level. Are you currently in a network that allows for you to form a 2.6 team around people when you have a need? When you need an insight do you go to the same six people? Or do you have a network that allows you to tap some people who have no experience in the field and you don’t really even know all that well and some people who are old friends? Most of us, I would argue, go to the old friends, go to the people we know, we trust. Even inside an organization, we have a problem, we go to the person we know we trust. Most of us don’t think about, hmm, I need a 2.6 team around me. So I think that’s a really interesting question to sort of audit your own life, your work life, career with. Is am I in a network, a small world network, as Uzzi and Spiro would call it? That allows for 2.6 teams to be formed and disbanded properly. Now, you can do all of this stuff right and still not get it. The most devastating story, I talked about this a little bit earlier, that I think we tell ourselves, is the story that I call the Mousetrap story, the Mousetrap myth. And it’s taken from this phrase– you’ve all heard it– if you build a better mousetrap–
AUDIENCE: The world will beat a–
DAVID BURKUS: The world will beat a path to your door. It’s a catchy saying, right. It’s total rubbish, total rubbish. The actual mousetrap, right. So everybody picture a mousetrap. Picture a mousetrap. You’re picturing a wooden board, a metal spring, some cheese, because there’s always free cheese in a mousetrap. You’re picturing a device that was invented in 1899. And every year since then 400 patent applications come in to the US Patent Office for new and better, supposedly better, mousetraps. Some of them actually are better. About 20 of them have been developed into commercially viable products. You call an exterminator, they will not bring spring loaded mousetraps. You’ll buy them. But they won’t bring them. Maybe it’s that expertise thing, who knows. But you’re picturing something that was invented in 1899.
Interestingly enough, this is a total coincidence but it’s a fun one.
In 1899 Charles Duell, the chief of the US Patent Office, actually told the government we should close up shop. Nothing new is going to be invented. Those both happened in 1899. What’s going on here? Why does this happen? We live in– you live, we live, I live in the middle coast of America. But you all live in a valley built on the idea of so and so invented it, didn’t develop it, somebody else did. I drove by the Computer History Museum and it’s basically that story. The same thing happens in a variety of other fields.
And great ideas get rejected all the time.
My favorite example, actually, comes from music. Anyone a fan of Igor Stravinsky? I have a two-year-old son which means that I watch a lot a “Little Einsteins.” Which means I am now a fan of Igor Stravinsky. Igor Stravinsky’s greatest work was what? “The Rite of Spring.” How many people have heard “The Rite of Spring”? Actually, all of you, because I’m going to guess at some point you watched Fantasia. And it’s in there. “The Rite of Spring” is famous not just for shifting the history of ballet and musical composition. It’s famous for causing not one, but two riots on it’s opening night in Paris. So the show went on. It was very different from a traditional ballet at the time.
Some people loved it. Other people hated it, loathed it.
And those people began to argue, didn’t wait to go out for coffee afterwards and discuss the pros and cons. They started arguing while the show was going on. Arguments turned into shouting, turned into pushing and shoving, turned into fistfights, turned into riots. Parisian police actually storm in, separate out the two parties. And then on with the show. I have no idea why. Brief intermission, and then on with the show. Same thing happens. Stravinsky, himself, actually fled the theater, feared for his life, never got to see the curtain close on what would become his most famous piece. History is filled with great ideas.
They get rejected. They get rejected all the time.
There are the literal mousetraps, and there are metaphorical mousetraps. What’s happening is that for an idea to be innovative, for it to be a disruptive innovation, for it to be a great idea, it has to be new and it has to be useful. And it turns out we’re really bad at reconciling those two things. Because if something is new, by definition, it diverts from the status quo. But if something we want to judge is useful, what do we rely on to judge whether or not something is useful? Status quo, older ideas, our past expertise. This is that expertise myth, sort of all over again, but on a societal level. And what you get, what we find in research, especially in times of uncertainty and in situations of uncertainty, we may say we love new ideas. But we will always cling to the comfort of what appears to be useful. And so on the surface we say, I hear this all the time from organizations.
You can title a book about how companies generate great ideas. And people read it.
Then you give them this last chapter, mousetrap myth thing about, it’s not actually about generating great ideas. Odds are your people are already doing that. It’s about how bad we all are at recognizing the great ideas that are coming out. And there are a bunch of different tools that you can use. So there are companies that have internal stock markets. And there are other companies that allow for a little, sort of, hackathons. There are other companies that allow for sort of a burn fund. We know we can lose this much money on new stuff and we’ll just write it off. And I don’t want to talk about the techniques because the techniques are great, but unless we actually talk about the psychological bias we all have against great ideas. It’s sort of like an Alcoholics Anonymous.
Call it Creatives Anonymous.
Hi I’m Dave and I have a bias against great new ideas. And until you actually become aware of that bias, and when you’re presented with a new idea– even if it’s something small– until you become aware of it and you realize that I am evaluating this idea based on my past experiences and that might not be the right thing. Until you come to that we run into a big problem.
See I talked earlier about, you have a Kindergarten classroom. 25 kids, they’re all creative. They get to college, two of them are. And even they’re cheating. So what is it that happens in those years? It’s not necessarily the education system. We can tweak the education system all we want. It’s that we as people, when we’re evaluating the ideas of these kids who are coming up, we are suffering this bias. And they get a new idea that doesn’t jive with our status quo. And we say, that’s a terrible idea.
Maybe it’s a good idea.
Maybe it’s a good idea for where that person is. And then we graduate into work. And, by the way, it’s not all that different, right? I used to get a report card. Now I get a performance evaluation. It’s the same system. The letters changed. That’s about it. The competencies might change. I haven’t had to solve for x in a long time. But that’s because of where I work. So the competencies change, but it’s still an evaluation system. It’s an evaluation system based on this idea that our old experiences define what good looks like. And when you present a new idea that doesn’t jive with our old experiences it’s not going to work, until, of course, it does. See the beautiful thing that, the lesson that I like to really emphasize in the mousetrap myth is that you all heard “The Rite of Spring.” You all, presumably, have used a personal computer, another great idea that got rejected at first. You all have used a digital camera. That got rejected by the people that developed it. How may people have been to Disneyland? That was rejected 301 times for a loan. Legend says. I actually had a hard time sourcing that. But it’s too good to not be true. So you all have presumably been to Disneyland. All of these great ideas that are truly great eventually persist. And so I think the best place to begin– there’s a much broader long term discussion we need to have about structure and organizations in societies. But the best place to begin is if you’ve ever had a great idea and it got rejected, take heart. You’re in really good company. You’re in the company of Igor Stravinsky. You’re in the company of Walt Disney. You’re in the company of people who eventually did actually arrive at that. So take heart. Know that they’re doing that with– they had that bias. They’re suffering. It’s their problem. But at the same time realize this means I need to work on mine too. Because most of the organizations that I talk to start with this idea of how do we get more great ideas. And for most of them the truth is all the same. We don’t need more great ideas. We just need to get better at recognizing the great ideas we already have. We need to tell ourselves that story. We need to make sure that that idea spreads. So thank you so much. I know we covered a ton of different stuff in this. And there’s a lot of different ideas to spread and myths we need to rewrite. But we also covered a ton of stuff. And I want to know what questions do you have for me.
AUDIENCE: So is this your next book? Or how do we get better at recognizing the ideas that we’ve already gotten?
DAVID BURKUS: So I talk about a couple companies that are really good at it. My favorite in the book is a company called Right Solutions that actually has an idea stock market. So you can basically invest in virtual currency and different ideas that people post on this internal market. And that doesn’t necessarily counteract our psychological bias. But it sort of spreads out the pain of being wrong. If I green light an idea and it cost me 10 virtual dollars. And it turns out to be a terrible one, I didn’t lose much. But as you think about a traditional hierarchy organization, the higher up you go in an organization, the more– let’s be honest– the more your job is just to not get fired. You get to that top, top level. And this is pretty sweet. You think about– the Fortune 500 list just came out. Every Fortune 500 CEO is like, this is a sweet gig. I don’t want to lose it. So I don’t want to take big risks. That’s the sort of psychological thing, I think, that’s behind much more empirically proven concepts like Clay Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma.” We’re just trying to not get fired. In marketing there’s a saying that nobody ever got fired for running a Super Bowl ad. It’s good advice. If you don’t want to get fired. If you want to do a disruptive innovation, you got to think a little bit differently. So it’s actually not the next book because I wish I knew. I’m hoping to start a much bigger conversation. And maybe it’s the third book because there’s a lot more talk that needs to happen. I will say there is some interesting work by Everett Rogers. He’s actually the guy that came up with the diffusion of innovation curve. And he has some interesting research on– there are five factors that ideas, that make it all the way through that curve, all share. And so it’s kind of a good guide of when you have this idea, does it have these five things. Well, then maybe I should green light even if it says it’s crazy. And so those things are, is it easily try-able? Even if it diverts from the status quo can you see the connection between what you use to do and what you do now? Are the results easily observable? So can the improvement be seen really easily or does it take forever? And I’m blanking on the other two. But they’re there. So Everett Rogers is the author of these five factors. I actually wrote a piece about it for “99U.” And I’m blanking on the other two. But that’s OK. They’re there. Why bother to remember when Google can tell me?
AUDIENCE: So in the Amazon reviews that I peeked at shortly before coming–
DAVID BURKUS: Wow. That’s incredibly intimidating. OK.
AUDIENCE: It’s not bad. No, I saw some stuff about the creativity process at Pixar that you had written about. Can you talk a little bit about that?
DAVID BURKUS: Yeah. So I don’t want to steal too much of Ed’s thunder. Ed Catmull just wrote an amazing book called “Creativity, Inc.” that’s his, for lack of a better term, opening up the kimono and saying here’s how we do it. And what’s funny is I tried really hard to get more than what had been previously written. But because Ed was working on that book I didn’t really want to talk to somebody else writing about their process. But there’s a lot that’s already readily shared. And the thing that I think is most telling, the most useful thing I think about when I think about the process of Pixar’s, Ed is fond of always saying that every film at Pixar sucks when its first idea comes out. And then they go through a process of going from suck to non-suck. And presumably when it non-sucks enough they ship it. And that process is actually using criticism. So there’s a chapter in the book that I call the cohesive myth, because we have this idea that it always works out happy go lucky, free food, all that sort of stuff. And from an outside perspective looking in, you just feel like these people never fight. Well, at Pixar they fight all the time. They fight at these things called dailies. They’re not personal fights. But they are, I don’t like this about this frame. And the thing that Pixar does a lot of times is they steal from improv. Anybody ever taken an improv class? So first rule of improv, always accept an offer. I always say yes and–. So they do this thing called plussing, where even if you’re criticizing you are building off of that criticism with a suggestion. So Even if you’re criticizing you’re still staying positive. And when your complementing, you’re still building off of. The idea is you’re criticizing people. You’re not doing the compliment sandwich. Has anybody ever eaten a compliment sandwich? They don’t taste good. You’re not saying like, here’s an unrelated thing you’re good at. Here’s where you suck. Here’s an unrelated thing you’re good at. But it’s this part sucks. And by the way, it’s not you suck, but this thing sucks. And here’s my idea to fix it. And I accept or reject that you can take it. But I accept that if I’m going to criticize I have an obligation to give you a suggestion to make it better. Unfortunately I wrote about this too much. I don’t like to share it because then when I criticize, people look back at me and go well, you owe me a plus now. You’re under an obligation to give me back it. And sometimes I just don’t have them, because we’re really good at criticizing. But it takes time to really get it into your head that every time I’m going to criticize something I also have to offer a solution, or a potential solution.
AUDIENCE: Have you witnessed any meeting structures or organization layouts, they way they set up the company, that destroy creativity?
DAVID BURKUS: Hierarchy, cubicles, lots of stuff. No, I mean, a particular one? I think one of the really interesting things is, I think what we have, and this interestingly enough– he ran off– is the subject of the next book. At least for me, is I think we have, in general, a philosophy of management and a philosophy of leadership that’s based on making a car, or making some product in an assembly line format. And gradually, over time, some more enlightened companies with multi-colored logos have come to the realization that you can’t use that stuff over here. But at a worldwide level I don’t think we’ve gotten to that awareness yet. And even inside of those companies I don’t know that they’ve gotten to the idea that we need to think about building systems around the needs and the capabilities of people and not of the product. Because when you have a knowledge work economy your people are your product. There’s this phrase, our people are our greatest asset. You’ve heard it? I hate that phrase. I loathe it because assets can be bought, sold. Assets have systems to control them, to leverage their value. Your people are your greatest source of competitive advantage. And that’s a much different approach because that’s not something you can buy, sell, and trade like a stock or a major league baseball player. Those people might be assets. But normally our people are our source of competitive advantage or our source of ideas. And any system that doesn’t start with the idea of here are the people. And now based on what we know about the needs and capabilities of people, we’ll build the system around them. I wish I could say this system is bad and this one’s great. And everybody should do holacracy or whatever the current management fad is. The point is to build a system of management and leadership around the needs of your people, and then go from there. And never be afraid to tweak as those needs change, because they will.
AUDIENCE: So at the beginning you mentioned society or the environment that might be encouraging creativity or not or a lot of judgment. So I wonder, like Silicon Valley is famous for a lot of projects, exciting companies, and so on. But what happened other places that the culture is totally the opposite. How can you still succeed in that kind of environment or what suggestion do you have?
DAVID BURKUS: So we have two layers to that question if I may. So there’s the idea of what about these other companies. First of all, how did that happen? Some really interesting research that basically non-compete clauses and some other stuff. Essentially you have this culture of secrecy in a lot of places. Like why did Silicon Valley beat out Route 128 decades ago? Well, one was about keeping ideas secret, very, very secret. Other was about open sharing of ideas. There are always exceptions that prove the rule. One is not far from here. The rest of them are– usually you have the more your open with sharing of ideas around an organization and the more tolerant you are of those new ideas. So what do you do if you’re stuck in one, if you’re stuck on Route 128? First of all you may not be there for long. I grew up not far from there. I remember in Lowell, Massachusetts there’s this massive building, the Wang building. And it was empty for years. And it was a testament to like, this doesn’t work. And I never forgot that. I moved away fairly often but I never forgot that idea. You’re smiling because you’ve probably seen the Wang building, right.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, right off [INAUDIBLE].
DAVID BURKUS: Yeah, yeah. Exactly, exactly. So testament too that the social environment matters. So what do you do if you stuck– first of all if you’re stuck in a company like that you won’t be there for long. It’ll fold up and you’ll go somewhere else. The other thing, I think, is a lot of us don’t appreciate that we have this work life balance approach of like it’s two different things, and we need to balance the two instead of integrate and merge around. And there are obviously legal limits to how much you’re supposed to share. My wife’s an ER doctor so there’s some stuff she’s not legally allowed to share. But there’s other things that she comes home with and we talk about. And so I think if you’re stuck in a company that doesn’t allow that, find some other way to at least be in a social environment that supports that, even if you know it’s not going to work in your company. And build an exit plan. It’s a sad thing. But the fun thing. There’s a woman by the name of Orly Lobel who’s done a lot of research on talent that moves around, non-compete clauses, and that sort of stuff. And she encapsulates this idea that talent wants to be free. Not free in the sense that they don’t want to work for anyone and they just want to be freelancers. But they want to know that when they have an idea they’re free to pursue it. If they need to move to a different organization, if they need to share it with people outside, that they have freedom. So if you are talent and you want to be free and you’re not, get free. Now if your an organization and all your talent’s leaving, there’s a lesson for you in somebody else’s book called “Talent wants to be Free” that will help you a lot. But first, of course, read the one with the monkey on the cover.
AUDIENCE: You made a comparison between Kindergarten and college classes. And I was wondering if you’ve come across any individuals or any stories about people who’ve actually retained the same level of creativity they had when they were in kindergarten.
DAVID BURKUS: So I like to bridge the gap between what I can empirically prove and what I can turn into a good story. And in this case I can’t. But I can tell you that a lot of people’s stories or ideas flow around. This is, I think, why we actually associate certain disciplines as creative and others as not. So if you were that free spirit that the traditional system is kind of crushing, there are places where you find solace and sanctuary, the art classroom if it still exists in your public school, theater, music. There are just certain disciplines where that environment is there and so you naturally gravitate towards it. And because it supports that you begin to practice. And practice really does, well deliberate practice, really does make perfect. So I think, one specific story, no. But I think the reason people gravitate towards certain fields sometimes is just that. They feel like they have this desire to express themselves and they find sanctuary somewhere. As a story on a personal note that sort of resonates with me. I have two siblings. One is a musician. The other’s in music theater. And I’m a writer. And all three of us were sort of attracted to that early on. All three of us did terribly in the school systems until we arrived at that place of study where we could actually do what we wanted to do and then thrived. So it happens.
AUDIENCE: The talk it out. I’m kind of curious about the idea of the 2.6. I feel like the inverse U of how if you have too much kind of difference or too much unity like those could be kind of limiting factors. And I’m curious whether you have any thoughts on how either companies or things should structure themselves according to that. Because in the political system you’ve got political parties switching in and out. There’s elections so you can get new people in, old people out and stuff like that. Do you feel like companies–
DAVID BURKUS: That’d be ideal but I don’t know that that happens. So what you have is you have your party that’s in and then when they’re voted out they’ll move over to this think tank and they wait for another cycle. And they all come back in. So you don’t get the 2.6. I mean I would love for that to happen. There is, interestingly enough, from right here, it started in San Francisco. There’s an awesome nonprofit called Fuse Corps that actually works to sort of build 2.6 teams. What they essentially do is they place fellows. They hate when I use this analogy but it works. They’re sort of like Teach for America but for city and state governments. So they try and place mid-career professionals and entrepreneurs into city and state governments in order to bring those fresh ideas in. The other thing I think a lot of industrial design and consulting firms have a structure that allows them to do that. Roger Martin from the Rotman School up in Toronto actually had this great article a couple months ago in the Harvard Business Review around, even economically there may be a case for the consultancy firm model, where people are always moving around to different projects. Because when you have an economic downturn, if you’ve structured boxes and lines in a traditional hierarchy then you look and go, this segment’s not performing. We spit it off. But if you have a much more fluid structure than you can adapt quicker and possibly not lay as many people off and then have to scramble to find new people when it comes back. That’s where it sucks. So there’s maybe even an economic case to be made for that little bit more fluid. We’re really at the beginning of figuring out what does this model look like, because it doesn’t look like boxes and lines and factory assembly lines and that sort of stuff.
AUDIENCE: So some of the stuff you talked about reminded me of The Smart Stranger, which I think you kind of started to allude to. But this idea that someone who’s smart– the mathematician that you were talking about.
DAVID BURKUS: Paul Erdos.
AUDIENCE: Erdos. OK. So he was–
DAVID BURKUS: Our only mathematician already left. Shame.
AUDIENCE: Like he was playing the role of the smart stranger where you’re a smart person and then you jump into an environment that you’re not familiar with. And that that actually sparks innovation and creativity. Since it sounds like you’re also in business school stuff probably? So is anyone looking at the opportunities of formalizing a smart stranger as like a role, almost, in companies to spark innovation? This is like kind of wild, but–
DAVID BURKUS: What?
AUDIENCE: Like 20% of the time it’s kind of like that.
DAVID BURKUS: Similar in the idea you play around with something you’re new at. I think you’re talking about a deliberate role. Almost like you have a devil’s advocate for criticism. You have the smart stranger for like– I’m really hesitant because obviously this is being recorded and will be world wide and I want to pretend like this is our idea and trademark it. And then we’ll spin it off. But it’s actually a really good idea.
AUDIENCE: We’ll talk later.
DAVID BURKUS: Yeah, for sure. It’s actually a really good idea in a formal role. I don’t know of anything. One of the things I love again, this comes out of Roger Martin again and Michael Porter and the consulting group that they started years ago in strategy. One of the really common questions that doesn’t get asked often enough when you’re building a strategy, is what assumptions have to be true for this to work? And really just taking the deliberate, did we remember to ask that question. Because even that’s like OK, let’s assume all of our assumptions are wrong and then prove them. Some of them may not be true. And so you can arrive at that same sort of expertise thing. I think the other thing, the thing that we especially– I’m an American so I’m terrible at– is just stop pretending to be an expert in everything. I think it’s really interesting. I walk in sometimes to organizations or conferences. And we do a prep call. And sometimes I’ve researched them and other times I haven’t. Mostly just ran out of time. And I used to like pretend that I had researched them. Now I’m on Wikipedia while I’m on the phone. But this amazing thing happened when I said, no, I really don’t know much about your company. Tell me about it. And it’s amazing because when you sort of swallow your pride that you don’t know everything, they’ll tell you the stuff that isn’t necessarily factual but the stuff you actually need to know. So this is an amazing thing that can happen when you just go, no I’m sorry. I tried. I didn’t have the time. Tell me about it. You don’t even have to say, tell me what’s important to you. They just will. So it’s, yeah, smart stranger thing. I really need to go to a trademark search on that. We’ll talk.
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