A Wolf among The Bees
by Ernie Schenck
"A mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone." —William Wordsworth on Isaac Newton
By now, we all know the story of Steve Wozniak. Inspired by a primitive, but promising, computer called the Altair 8800 and a group of uber-enthusiastic fellow technozoids called The Homebrew Computer Club, Woz started working on his own affordable, user-friendly computer. For three months, no one heard hide nor hair from Steve. For three months, he tinkered and soldered and futzed with this part and that, until finally he had something. Woz being Woz, he wanted to give the thing away for free. But another Steve convinced him to start Apple Computer. And that was that.
You could say that Apple would not have seen the light of day had it not been for collaboration. After all, if there had been no Altair 8800, if there had been no Homebrew Computer Club and if there had been no Steve Jobs to propel Steve Wozniak's brainchild into the outer reaches of the atmosphere where no company had gone before, well, maybe Woz would have invented a new kind of toaster or something.
Yet, make no mistake. The act of creation that occurred over those three months was a solitary one. Lonely as a lighthouse keeper. Isolated. Cut off from the world. And reveling in every moment of it. "Most inventors and engineers I've met," Woz has said, "are like me; they live in their heads. The best of them are artists. And artists work best alone. Work alone. Not on a team."
In the age of collaboration, the lone wolf is anathema. Poke your head into almost any ad agency and the spirit of full-metal collaboration is front and center. All those wide-open floor plans, those gleaming benches, those creatives lost in their Spotify playlists, pecking away at their MacBook Airs. At first glance, it seems energizing. It's all so open and breezy. So conducive to conversation. Sparks flying. Breakthroughs exploding from nothing into something. This is how great thinking gets done now. In the hive. In the happy convergences that happen when people are encouraged to run into each other. But is it possible we've lost something along the way? Wozniak, I'm willing to bet, would say that we have. And he's not alone.
Adrian Furnham is an organizational psychologist who's worked with corporations all over the world. "The evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups," says Furnham. "If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority."
Backbone Entertainment is a video game company in Emeryville, California. At first, the company had an open-plan office. The problem was that game developers tend to be introverts. "It was one big warehouse space, with just tables, no walls, and everyone could see each other," says Mike Mika, Backbone's creative director at the time. "We went to cubicles. You'd think creative people would hate that. But it turns out they prefer having nooks and crannies they can hide away in and just be away from everybody."
And, while the case against what Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can't Stop Talking, calls The New Groupthink seems incontrovertible, more than a few people in advertising aren't so sure.
Tom Monahan has conducted brainstorming sessions for agencies and brands all over the world. While he thinks brainstorming advertising ideas is a fool's game, he's convinced it works for almost everything else. "A large number of players always leads to more, bigger, better ideas. It also leads to a lot of crap that fertilizes the process. The secret is in managing it."
Will Burns runs a company called Ideasicle, a virtual creativity think tank that teams top industry experts. "Given a virtual environment to work within, where everyone is reduced to a typeface, each participant can be creative on his or her own time and in his or her own ways and everyone can see and build upon each other's ideas."
So who's right, the wolves or the bees? As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between. The smart companies recognize that there's room for both. If you've got a lone wolf introvert creative genius working for you, leave her be. Let her run. Don't try to get her to lie down with the bees. On the other hand, if you've got a hive full of social creators that thrive on interaction to make great ideas happen, give them every chance to do that.
In a business where creativity has never been more important, we need both. CA