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Score One for the Introverts When Seeking Innovation

Posted January 17, 2012 10:11 AM by Mark Cutler

When, as a consultant, you help clients execute their strategy, you cannot help but run into talk about innovation--what an organization must do to foster it and how to measure it. In this blogpost I want to focus on the "fostering innovation" part because I read a great article in The New York Times this Sunday, "The Rise of the New Groupthink."

The author, Susan Cain, argues that the "New Groupthink"--which holds that creativity and achievement come from open, collaborative, and gregarious workplaces--goes against the research in the field. "Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all," says Cain. "Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in."

I have seen this with clients who are excited about moving to new office spaces with large open floor plans that they believe will foster collaboration and innovation. As a self-described introvert, this always puzzled me. While I am not introverted to the point where I don't desire social interaction at the workplace, I've always disliked and felt least productive in working environments where I didn't have my own office. When I feel like I need to get some real thinking done, I need to close the door--doesn't everyone?

Citing psychological studies, Cain says that "the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted ... They're extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They're not joiners by nature."

She goes on to describe the origins of Apple with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, stating that while Jobs gets most of the credit for the company's success, it was the "introverted engineering wizard, Steve Wozniak, who toiled alone on a beloved invention, the personal computer."

While sure, without his collaboration with the marketing wizard Jobs, Apple wouldn't have been founded. However, "it's also a story of solo spirit. If you look at how Mr. Wozniak got the work done -- the sheer hard work of creating something from nothing -- he did it alone. Late at night, all by himself."

So, when thinking about fostering innovation with this in mind, you should not just consider using that "20% Google time" for brainstorming sessions with large groups of people, but to really allow your staff to go off on their own and think hard about new ideas.

Filed Under Collaboration