Creative Conversation[]

To put it another way, creativity thrives on conversation. Open source communities encourage a constant babble. People talk to one another the whole time. They are never silent. Talk about work gets mixed up with gossip and jokes. Organisations that want to be good at innovation have to be good at conversation. Think about some of the most powerful conversations you have had in your life. A good conversation is never fully under control. You learn things you did not expect to and often find yourself saying things you did not plan to: admitting a confidence, revealing a weakness, declaring views you did not realise you held so passionately. Good conversations feel open ended: you cannot say in advance where they will lead. The most important conversations you have in your life will change you and the way you think about the world. Creative conversations are like a shared exploration the results of which cannot be guaranteed in advance. Good conversations are not lectures, diatribes, sermons, cross examinations or proclamations. They depend on people listening as intently as they talk.

Two of the biggest advances in 20th century science came from conversation. Werner Heisenberg, the German nuclear physicist and author of the uncertainty principle said in his autobiography that all science is rooted in conversation. His conversations with Neils Bohr and other physicists in Copenhagen in the 1920s paved the way for quantum mechanics and other theories that in time led not just to the nuclear bomb but many advances in modern electronics. Bohr liked to work out theories through constant, often meandering, intense conversations, which spilled out from his laboratory to his villa or summer house. Conversation was also central to Watson and Crick’s unravelling of DNA. They spurred each other on, offering new ideas and insights. One a chemist, the other a biologist, they would often clash but combined to create a new shared insight. It was their ability to hold creative conversations that allowed them to succeed where others failed.

Even the most famous inventor of all, Thomas Edison, was a great collaborator. March 25th, 1876, is one of the most important dates in the history of modern capitalism: Edison opened his legendary laboratory in Menlo Park, to create a factory for invention. It was in Menlo Park that Edison produced the phonograph and the light bulb. Edison seemed to have found a way to systematically organise invention. At the time Menlo Park, in New Jersey, was little more than a hamlet with a dozen houses where an inventor could cut himself off, concentrate, without distraction, rapidly building, testing and refining prototypes, often working an 80 hour week. The truth is that most of Edison’s achievements came about through collaboration. Far from being a tortured lone inventor Edison was highly social. He was constantly seeking new partnerships with people with money and ideas. He was restless and rarely stayed in one place. Edison had started his working life as an itinerant telegraph operator. Moving from place to place he struck up conversations with strangers, picking up an idea in one place and taking it to another. That was the method he employed throughout his life. Edison worked at Menlo Park for only four years. The Menlo Park lab was closed just six years after it opened and Edison had move back to New York City.

As Edison took on more complex tasks so his methods became more collaborative. Those collaborators are not household names – Charles Batchelor, James Adam, John Kuresi, Charles Wurth – but as Edison admitted, without them, he would not have come up with many of the inventions which made him famous. We think of Edison as a lone inventor in part thanks to the patent system which routinely named employers as the owners and originators of any invention made by an employee. The patent system disguises the collaborative nature of innovation. Edison had a genius for rapidly developing his ideas by drawing on the talents and skills of others. His laboratories were small communities of creativity. As Edison’s career progressed it became harder and harder to see him as “the” inventor. He was the focal point for a mass of intense creative collaboration and joint authorship.

Creative conversations of the kind that Watson and Crick, Bohr and Heisenberg engaged in are not usually helped by strict time limits on when they can end because the parties for the next meeting are banging at the door. Powerpoint is not good for conversation. Nor is sitting quivering on the sofa in the boss’s office. Big corporations are designed to be conversation killers. That is why they often find innovation so hard.

A creative conversation is not just a good chat though. The word dialogue comes from the Greek dia-logos: a flow of shared meanings. Each participant must give something of themselves in a way that encourages the other to reciprocate. A good conversation requires people to listen intently not just to speak their mind. Listening attentively and thoughtfully to other people, trying to help them make sense of what they are saying is more tiring than speaking. You have to be prepared to adjust, not simply to defend the views you came into the conversation with. When you are in a good conversation you loose a sense of time, the conversation takes on a flow. What to say next seems obvious without being planned. But a good conversation also needs pauses, spaces for thought and reflection. How many managers in large companies have the time to really listen to people or show a willingness to adjust their views? Being a manager is about being in charge, showing no doubt. That is why managers don’t often have good conversations with the people they work with. Good conversations are self-moderating. People do not hog the limelight. How often in large companies do senior managers ever get involved in conversations moderated by other people? The manager is always the moderator. Good conversations start and keep going when they are about questions that interest people but to which there is no set answer. Linus Torvalds got Linux going by leaving his programme open ended: it started an interesting conversation. Most managers do not ask interesting, open ended questions because they already know the answers: this is the direction we should go in, this is how we get there, I am in charge. Being a manager is not about asking open ended, often apparently stupid questions that will excite the right kind of conversation. Most of the time management is about doing things to people; dialogue is about doing things with people.

Good conversations often take place in shared, neutral spaces. That does not mean a barren meeting room. Most of the best conversations about work do not take place at work. They happen over food or drink. I suspect one reason the Finnish mobile phone company Nokia has been so innovative over such a long period is that everyone stops for lunch and everyone eats in the same canteen. They do not go out to get a sandwich that they wolf down in their work pod while sending a few emails. There is no separate dining room for executives. Everyone eats together and so talks together. These days most work it seems involves talking, which is why so much work now gets done in coffee shops and so many offices seek to model themselves on cafes. Creative conversations have to encourage people to let go of fixed positions that make people want to reject ideas that strike them as unfamiliar and threatening. Innovation only happens if people are prepared to suspend judgements, entertain wild ideas and build upon them. If you want to lead a creative organisation, city or region, you have to lead a creative conversation. That means promoting interesting questions, creating spaces where people can talk, bringing in different view points, ensuring the discussion is moderated but not by you, making sure it does not split, meander or lose its way and knowing when to bring it to a close, to stop talking and start acting. Open source communities are just these kinds of conversations. That is why they excel at highly social, collaborative forms of innovation.

Consensus and conformity, can inhibit the very free-thinking and debate on which innovation thrives. To be innovative you have to be gregarious, promiscuous even, in search of promising ideas. As well as peering into the future you have to be prepared to look for ideas in marginal and non-mainstream places. And you have to be good at attracting people with these deviant ideas to take part in the conversation you are hosting. Above all, do not eat lunch at your desk or in an executive dining room: stop, sit down, do it properly and talk to other people, across a neutral space. The best ideas come about through conversations and the best conversations do not happen in the office, they take place over food. The challenge of open source communities will mean large organisations will have to remodel themselves as open innovators. Leading innovation and creativity is often like leading a creative conversation. That is why open and collaborative ways of working demand new open and collaborative approaches to leadership.

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