Isolation vs. collaboration

In The New York Times’ Sunday Review section (January 15th) the front page opinion article was “The Rise Of the New Groupthink” by Susan Cain.  It was subtitled “Collaboration is in.  But it may not be conducive to creativity.”

As someone who believes in the power of collaboration – it’s part of the name of my company, Collaborative Xceleration – I had to read the article to see if my view of collaboration and creativity needed to be revised.

Problems with the article became apparent as I read the first paragraph:

“Solitude is out of fashion.  Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place.  Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all.  Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.”

Putting aside the 1984-style implications of “the New Groupthink”, I see this article as indicative of a larger problem in our society – everything is discussed in terms of polar opposites; this is in, that is out; black and white, without any measure of grey – never mind any other colors.  The real world is much richer than the polemics of either side.

I don’t believe that “privacy and freedom from interruption” (solitude in Ms. Cain’s terms) are “out of fashion”; and I don’t believe we are all “in thrall to the New Groupthink” as the only solution for creativity and achievement.  I always “isolate” myself when writing (such as this blog) – I even turn off the music!! – because for that activity I don’t need the input of others.  However, when I working on a thorny issue, I like to ‘noodle’ about it with others to see if they can see something that I am missing.

People are trying to isolate themselves from the outside world – with their iPods and their noise cancelling headphones – in places and ways they didn’t in the past; private time in a public place.  Plenty of people take time on their own to “think things through”.  Ms. Cain is able to support her position that “solitude is a catalyst to innovation” because it is true – notice that she said “a catalyst” not “the catalyst” – we often need to quiet our conscious minds so that the subconscious can help us see what we haven’t seen before.

Of course, Ms. Cain then supports my “it’s not all black and white” position by stating the the “spectacularly creative”, while often introverted, are “extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas”.  I myself have, many times, witnessed someone’s idea being improved upon by the interaction with, and feedback from, others.  Collaboration can speed the development of an idea and make it stronger; accelerating achievement.

What I see is a spectrum with full isolation on one end and full interaction on the other.  Ms. Cain obviously believes we are at, or close to, the full interaction end of the spectrum.  In my opinion, neither end of the spectrum is the healthiest, most comfortable or most productive place to be.  Of course, people are different and will be most comfortable and productive at different points on the spectrum – but some mix of isolation and collaboration is the best place to be.

When it comes to starting and/or growing a business, your ideas are just that, until you develop and execute against them – and that is best done in cooperation and collaboration with a team.

Excellent Execution

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