What sort of creativity can flow from our combined experiences and perspectives?
Variations of this question are on the mind of many, but the structural and cultural practices needed to realize the answer often remain elusive.
In business and beyond, a “culture of genius” takes hold in many organizations. Breakthrough ideas and innovation are viewed as holy ground reserved for a select individual or group whose thinking guides the collective trajectory. These leaders hold decision-making power, establish company culture, and choose who succeeds. Members of the organization pursue success by shifting behaviors and mindsets to blend with established norms, creating a monoculture with a singular perspective.
In environments built around a culture of genius, there is a prevailing notion that each individual has the unique skills to succeed; it’s just a matter of the right person recognizing them. This elevation of self sets a standard of competition throughout the organization as individuals seek to outperform each other. An organization’s core purpose can be diluted or supplanted entirely by competition. Trust is low, and fear of failure is high. The initial motivation of competition leads to burnout (looking at you, “hustle culture”), and overall progress toward goals, both at work and in society, decreases.
A culture of genius is often accompanied by a reverence for specialization that limits interdisciplinary work with a “stay in your lane” mindset: project managers manage, designers design, and so on. This approach is preferred for its perceived efficiency, but it negatively affects the way individuals view their abilities beyond their specific role, in addition to creating imbalanced power dynamics and inhibiting collective potential.
Iterations of this culture are the default across most organizations, but several decades of research indicates that this model persists based on the inertia of tradition more than a demonstrated record of success.
Here’s how we begin to move forward:
Organizations that continually reimagine and reinvent what’s possible don’t place constraints on innovation. Collective genius is cultivated by empowering individuals to engage, experiment, and create together. With less rigidity and greater autonomy, the fluid organization is the ambition and progress of its members. Instead of job postings that describe ideal candidates as “creative rock stars” or “social media gurus”, these organizations avoid ego-driven competition and seek out creative curiosity and hybrid skill sets that form the foundation of cooperative environments. Employees are given the time and resources to develop skills. As new capabilities emerge, the collective becomes more adaptable and resilient from within.
The evolution of technology is continually accelerating the rate of change in the world around us. Increased optimization and automation narrows pathways for organic, uninhibited imagination. While the day may come that artificial intelligence is more creative than the human mind; it isn’t here yet. In the meantime, we need to double-down on our greatest strengths: imagination and critical thinking. This begins by moving beyond systems that commodify creativity with assembly-line efficiency and make way for the dreaming, curiosity, and experimentation that will create a more cooperative future.
Let’s borrow a lesson from a few billion years ago to better understand the tradeoffs between variation and optimization. The earliest protozoans on earth reproduced through asexual cloning. Cell mimicry was incredibly efficient, but as it turned out, organisms with identical DNA were susceptible to dying off from the same factors. To survive, organisms began to reproduce through recombination- a process we’re more familiar with today because it’s worked pretty well for the past 3 billion years or so. The genetic variation that came from a 50/50 DNA split allowed organisms to adapt to survive disease, predators, climate fluctuations and the like. The same evolutionary logic holds true when it comes to innovation. Ideas from a single source typically lack the variation to overcome challenges. Exchanging ideas from a multitude of perspectives allows us to combine unique elements to create stronger ideas. This process of recombination takes more time, but when ideas come to life, they’re more likely to be a true evolution.
When we reject the rigidity of a culture of genius and usher in creativity from a diversity of perspectives, we can unleash the free-flowing innovation needed to take on bigger challenges with bolder solutions.