Collaboration is all the rage. Everyone’s talking about its importance and searching for ways to do it more effectively—not only within organisations but across government, education, and industry sectors.
Recent insight into neuroscience tells us that the brain is a social organ. In a concise YouTube video, Louis Cozolino, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Pepperdine University, says that the human brain evolved to connect with other brains and that we create an internal model of the experience of those we come into contact with. Good managers intuitively understand this. They concentrate on team-building and foster collaborative workplaces. In fact, many offices are now designed without walls as vast open areas so that employees may interact freely. The ‘team’ is now centre-stage in many organisational structures. More and more, disparate and far-flung groups are asked to communicate, cooperate, work together better.
As much as the Western world values individuality, there has been a huge shift in recent decades away from what an individual might accomplish in isolation towards what groups of talented people might accomplish by pooling their knowledge, talents, insights and energy. This shift makes perfect sense in an increasingly hyperkinetic world that relies on faster, smarter technologies.
It’s worth considering, however, that we may have overshot the mark. There are times, in spite of the brain being a social organ, when collaboration is distinctly brain-unfriendly.
Emotions are contagious
Because we create an internal model of the experience of those we encounter, teams can be hijacked by negative members, affecting productivity and morale. In an article for HBR Tony Schwartz, says the emotions people bring to work are as important as their cognitive skills, and especially so for leaders. Negative emotions spread like wildfire and they’re highly toxic.
But there is something subtler at play. People are drawn to outgoing, dynamic personalities. The one who speaks the most is generally seen to be most intelligent. According to Susan Cain in an interview for Scientific American, we’re such social animals, we instinctively mimic others’ opinions, often without realizing we’re doing it. The result is that if we are always working in groups or with groups in mind, certain types will dominate and quieter voices will be less likely to be heard.
Introvert v Extrovert
While the world is becoming more extroverted, the ratio of introverts to extroverts remains relatively steady, about one in four. These different personality types perform best in opposite circumstances and environments. According to many of the studies Cain cites in her book, introverted personalities are feeling increasingly stressed in a workplaces that are becoming less suitable to their working styles.
The greater the emphasis is on collaboration, the more likely the contributions of these workers, many of whom work best alone, will be overlooked—or perhaps not be generated in the first place.
Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There is a real need for dynamic leaders who can take a good idea and hit the ground running. But without that good idea in the first place, there is nothing to innovate. We know from neuroscience that creativity requires periods of quiet reflection.
Offices without borders
The current focus on collaboration, adaptation, and innovation has brought about fundamental changes to the way the office looks. The rigid ‘cube farm’ of the 1990s has lost its foothold to flexible offices that encourage employees to move freely within the space.
There is a downside, however. Proximity to our colleagues makes it easier to have a spontaneous micro-meeting, but it also means we have to sit through their deconstruction of the latest television hit or their shouting matches with teenage children over the phone.
Peter Wilson, the chairman and national president of the Australian Human Resources Institute, says:
There is no doubt the ‘jam the most number of people into a square metre’ approach, which was the style in the 1990s and a good part of the early millennium, has gone. It was associated with quite significant morale and productivity drops. The new wave of innovation is about activities for workers such as socialising, eating and locating themselves in all manner of different environments while they work.
The activity-based workplace is an environment with a range of different zones that support collaborative tasks and work that needs to be more contemplative, something that aligns with what we’re learning about the brain.
This new workplace design relies on cutting-edge technology to tie it all together. But creating a shiny, high-tech environment doesn’t necessarily foster better ideas or enhance collaboration.
A study undertaken by Ann Majchrzak at USC demonstrates the relationship of the physical work environment to work process. Her three-year research effort revealed that companies that reengineered their business processes, making workers more interdependent, and then supported these work processes with open, collaborative environments realized productivity increases up to a whopping 440%.
With statistics like this, many organisations have jumped on the bandwagon only to discover that placing workers in these fancy open environments does not mean they will collaborate. The key to achieving positive results is actually found in attending to work process first and then ensuring that the physical environment and the work process complement rather than compete with each other.
Employers are still in the experimentation phase as to whether these new trends will actually work in the office.
Cain is doubtful. She draws on research to argue that the modern office has been designed exclusively for extroverted characters who thrive on the atmosphere. In contrast, open-plan office design has been a productivity disaster for quieter employees.
“If solitude is an important key to creativity, we might all want to develop a taste for it,” she argues in Quiet.
“You think we’d want to teach our kids to work independently. That we’d want to give employees plenty of privacy and autonomy. Yet increasingly we do just the opposite.”
As she terms it, the “new groupthink” places a burdensome emphasis on teamwork, nearly all of the time. In her estimation, up to 70 per cent of employees in the US spend their working day in open-plan offices of some description. The question is: Just what does this mean for creativity?
The creative process
In a recent article on innovation and the importance of collaboration, Phillip Micallef, the former executive chairman of MCA and former CEO of Malta Enterprise, makes the case for innovation being an increasingly “collaborative pursuit that runs across firms, countries and sectors”. He argues further that
successful innovation occurs through an “innovative system”, linking together the ideas, technology, finance and production networks needed to successfully develop new ideas and methods and then bring them to scale in a particular industry sector. [It] thrives through cross-cutting networks, where ideas can spread rapidly and be tested in practice by many users.
Micallef makes a distinction between two areas of innovation that go hand-in-hand. He argues that innovation is often equated with investing more in research to create knowledge, but that true innovation requires the application of that knowledge in new ways that create value. While he is absolutely correct in noting the importance of new knowledge, placing the emphasis on its application—the easy part—comes at the expense of new and innovative ideas being generated in the first place.
Cain’s work supports the importance of solitude to creativity. Writing for The New York Times, Cain states that “research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic.”She offers an explanation for these findings: Introverts are comfortable working alone—and solitude is a catalyst to innovation. She sites an observation by psychologist Hans Eysenck who claimed that introversion fosters creativity by “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.”
Architects know that triangles make a structure sound. Good managers know that knowledge management and knowledge transformation require three key components. As Harold Jarche, an expert in innovation, states in a recent article, there are three types of specialists none of whom can succeed in isolation:
- The true genius: “a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in general circulation.” By themselves they are misunderstood.
- A thought leader: “a highly intelligent citizen in good standing in his or her community, who understands and admires the fresh ideas of the genius, and who testifies that the genius is far from mad.” By themselves they are unsatisfied.
- The integrator: “a person who can explain everything, no matter how complicated, to the satisfaction of most people.” By themselves they are ignored.
Jarche argues that a diversity of talents is necessary for true innovation. If one side of the ‘talent triangle’ is missing, the strength of the idea will not be best supported—indeed, the idea may never originate at all.
Acknowledging that different personality types have different roles to play and allowing each the appropriate environment to utilise their talents is critical for true innovation. There are times when we can and should collaborate productively and times when we should be wise enough to leave each other alone.
This article first appeared in June 2013 in Brainwaves for Leaders.
There’s the story about the teenager in Scotland who needed treatment for his text messaging addiction. He sent 700 text messages per week and 8000 emails per month, almost all to one person—his girlfriend. They have since broken up.
In New York, a current trial rests on the interpretation of a text message: was the defendant serious or just joking when he threatened to kill the victim? I love the one about the mobile phone firm that has launched a hand set designed specifically for the motor skills of four-year-olds—with text messages built in. The firm’s promotional materials announce that it targets parents who want to know where their four-year-old is at all times. (They say this casually, as if there are parents of four-year-olds who don’t.) And believe it or not, the Chinese are now allowing text messaging in Tibetan.
What is this fascination—this addiction—we have to text messages?
I watch my teenage daughter across the room. She has collapsed into an armchair, one leg slung over the side. She holds her mobile phone in two hands, adeptly pressing buttons with her thumbs (the texting method she prefers). When I ask what she’s doing, she replies, “I’m just re-reading my text messages from the last few weeks. I’ve sent 76 and …” she presses a few more buttons, “and I’ve received 76 too!” She looks up beaming. I peer over her shoulder and read: “meet aftr skl 2moz ill tll u da hole stry”.
This reminds me of those ads when I was a teenager: “If u cn rd ths ad, we cn gv u a jb.” Not ever wanting the job they were offering, I used to pretend I had no idea what it said. But now I feel discouraged. That coded ad is much easier to parse than my daughter’s message. And I have this feeling that more than a job rests on being able to do so. It’s the future.
Mobile phones carry social capital in and of themselves. What kind of phone do you carry? How expensive is it? How sophisticated are its features? Does it have a camera? What kind of keypad? What kind of case? What plan are you on? For those who know, these questions are answered the moment someone pulls a phone from a pocket. It’s a big business and growing. Ring tones alone are a $3.5 billion dollar industry. But it’s more than that. The very act of texting has cachet and communicates something about the sender. I’m told by my daughter that I look ‘uncool’ when I write my text messages. Apparently, I squint and frown a lot. And then, I peck at the keypad with an index finger. “Very uncool,” says my husband, who uses the one-thumb method.
Text messaging is irresistible among teens and young adults. Termed ‘Generation Text’ for their zealous take-up of new technologies, they tend to form close knit ‘text circles’ that connect small groups of friends in perpetual contact. My daughter claims she can tell who’s writing simply by the style of the message and the abbreviations used. It’s a type of ‘visual signature’. “Everyone has their own way of texting,” she says. “It’s individual.”
It’s also instant, location independent and personal. The use of non-standard orthography is a powerful but also a playful means for young people to affirm their identities, to differentiate from adults and align themselves with each other. In one study, 90% of teens claimed they used text messaging more than they talked on the phone. The same group admits to feeling ‘anxious’ if they forget or lose their phone.
This applies to adults as well as to teens. My husband forgets his phone on a day when he ‘really’ needs it. Passing by a phone shop, he enters with a question about an upgrade and walks out with a new phone identical to the one forgotten. He has also signed up for a new plan with great savings (which made the phone free), and, because of a holiday promotion, he’s received (also for free!) a Playstation Portable (PSP).
A few days later, my daughter loses her phone. At the local pool, she thinks. It is just before the holidays, so we don’t have a chance to hunt for it before the break. When we return from our annual camping trip, we find the phone among the sofa cushions (not at the pool after all). Her face floods with relief: “I feel like I got back a part of myself.”
Marc Prensky, a guru of digital game-based learning, tells a story about a young Japanese student who said, “When you lose your mobile phone, you lose part of your brain.” It’s this type of identification that goes straight to the heart of the matter. How healthy is our reliance on new technologies? What is it doing to our sense of self? How is it affecting our literacy? And what does this mean for the future of education?
People tend to fall neatly into one of two camps. There are the alarmists, those who fear for the state of Standard English and even more for the minds of our young. And then, there are others who embrace the use of such new technologies as innovative and who feel that playful shifts in language are inevitable.
Professor Patrick O’Donnell is of the first group. A psychologist from Glasgow University, he asserts that “new technology brings dangers which could signal the beginning of worrying trends.” Remembering the young man and his 700-a-day text habit, his claim has some validity. And many English teachers complain that the widespread use of SMS has led to language erosion, poor grammar and spelling, and loss of concentration. They worry that literacy will be lost, that English is being bastardized, that books will disappear. Books disappear?
I ponder all of this. As children, didn’t we all used to speak together in Pig Latin? In most cases, this had no detrimental effects on our schoolwork. We very easily switched back into Standard English when required. Then, in high school, we were assigned ee cummings, and that didn’t hurt us much either. Writers, poets and even ordinary speakers—that’s us—have always played around with language.
The notion of standardization in written language is itself a convention. Writing has always been an abstraction away from spoken language. Ironically, many of the typographic practices of text messaging offer more ‘correct’ or more ‘authentic’ representations of speech. When you think about it, there has always been a complex relationship between the spoken and the written word, and it tends to cause a lot of confusion. A fiction writer who is trying to show the emotions of characters in conversation doesn’t necessarily write speech that might actually occur. The trick is to capture the essence of spoken language in a written form. It must seem natural and authentic and true to life, even though it is something quite different. However, while writing ‘speech’ can be a constraining endeavour, writing in general has served as a liberating force. As an example, think of the complex oral tradition of the ancient poets. In order to remember scenes, sequences and long passages, they devise richly detailed conventions around versifying. Once the words were preserved in writing, all those choliambics, galliambics, and glyconic strophes could be relaxed. I can imagine that more than a few people felt that something was lost when the stories were written down. And while it might have been essentially liberating, and while we know that it led to a variety of new ways of organizing thoughts and words, it must have sounded strange to the ear initially.
Human beings are fundamentally creative. It’s hardwired into us. And while language gives us the ability to arrange knowledge in ways that lead to innovation, innovation in turn puts demands on the language. Of course, language will shift and change. It always has—and often for less compelling reasons than today’s revolution in mobile technology. All of it comes from our creative nature. Out of this new technology, we’ve devised another playful and inventive use of language. It merely adds to our abilities. Text language shouldn’t be feared or discouraged. It should simply be thought of as one more tool for communicating, which is what all language is when you get right down to it.
I read an article in the newspaper about the 2006 Shakespeare Festival, which will be held later this year in Brisbane. High school teachers have been invited to involve their students in updating Shakespeare’s plays. In other words, get ready for rap and SMS versions of Twelfth Night. I recall that at recent writers festivals there have been sessions dedicated to the forms and uses of text language. And ACID, a groovy, innovative Brisbane-based R&D company, is developing content for ‘mobile learning’, an interesting area that specifically utilizes the social capital that’s created by the use of SMS among young people.
It seems that everyone is on board. SMS and text language are being made use of in the most unexpected ways. As early as the 2001 Edinburgh Festival, performers put on a play, Static, that invited people who watched the show on stage to subscribe to daily SMS messages from the play’s characters. And last year in the U.K., The Guardian (not exactly an avant garde publication) held a poetry contest for the best poem written in text language. The winning entry*, written by Hetty Hughes, a 22-year-old undergraduate, was selected from over 7500 entries by two of Britain’s foremost poets. I have even found online ‘text’ translations of the EU Constitution and the Bible.
And what of the fate of books? Are they really threatened? The idea has me worried until one day lately with time to kill, I step into a used book store in Brisbane’s West End. Browsing, I come across an old copy of The Aneaid. Lifting the book to my face, I inhale the scent of leather and dust and mildewed paper, the familiar and comforting odor of an old book. I read a few lines. In the blink of an eye, I am transported to a day a long time ago in New York. It was autumn, and I was walking along Central Park West fresh from the first day of a literature class at Columbia University. We were assigned The Aneaid, and I had just had my first glimpse of a new world. I paused, sat on a park bench to eat my lunch—an apple—and thumbed through it. The hour was golden. The vibrant reds and oranges of the turning trees cast a spell over the city. All my senses were engaged: the crisp smell of falling leaves, the vivid colours of the day, the rhythmic ebb and flow of traffic, the taste of the apple. That moment from the past returned in all its sensual detail, tumbling across years and oceans.
Books have the power to do this. We shouldn’t worry. Books aren’t going anywhere. The Aneaid has been around a long, long time. But we shouldn’t forget that books are made up of words, and it’s the words that are powerful, not just the container that holds them or the form they are put to. It’s not about the choliambics or the galliambics. It’s not only about the genre: poem, play, or novel. It’s not even about that fascinating contraption we all carry in our handbags and our pockets: the mobile phone. It’s about the play of the words, the creative, witty, innovative play of words. Who are we to decide now that masterpieces will never emerge from text language?
Is SMS a threat, a danger, a worry, a mess? Nah!
*The Guardian’s winning poem:
txtin iz messin,
mi headn’me englis,
they all come out txtis.
gran not plsed w/letters shes getn,
swears i wrote better
Hetty Hughes, 2005
Article first published in Arts Hub in 2006.