Creativity is one of the central themes of modern business thinking, and those companies that can consistently tap into a creative mother lode — think Job’s Apple, or Branson’s Virgin — become world-beaters while their competitors shrink.
One theory is that the geniuses at the top of these creative dynasties — Steve Jobs, for example — are the wellspring of this creativity. But of course, there are large teams within companies like Apple, and very few of the employees worked directly with Jobs. So, to a great extent creativity in business has to be a distributed characteristic: a sort of emergent property.
Being a student of social networks, I have long suspected that creativity in groups is a function of a balance in the strength of social connections, and I discovered that Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern, has dedicated a great deal of time looking into the world of Broadway musicals, using that as a template of creativity in general:
Jonah Lehrer, Brainstorming Doesn’t Really Work via The New Yorker
Uzzi wanted to understand how the relationships of these team members affected the product. Was it better to have a group composed of close friends who had worked together before? Or did strangers make better theatre? He undertook a study of every musical produced on Broadway between 1945 and 1989. To get a full list of collaborators, he sometimes had to track down dusty old Playbills in theatre basements. He spent years analyzing the teams behind four hundred and seventy-four productions, and charted the relationships of thousands of artists, from Cole Porter to Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Uzzi found that the people who worked on Broadway were part of a social network with lots of interconnections: it didn’t take many links to get from the librettist of “Guys and Dolls” to the choreographer of “Cats.” Uzzi devised a way to quantify the density of these connections, a figure he called Q. If musicals were being developed by teams of artists that had worked together several times before—a common practice, because Broadway producers see “incumbent teams” as less risky—those musicals would have an extremely high Q. A musical created by a team of strangers would have a low Q.
Uzzi then tallied his Q readings with information about how successful the productions had been. “Frankly, I was surprised by how big the effect was,” Uzzi told me. “I expected Q to matter, but I had no idea it would matter this much.” According to the data, the relationships among collaborators emerged as a reliable predictor of Broadway success. When the Q was low—less than 1.7 on Uzzi’s five-point scale—the musicals were likely to fail. Because the artists didn’t know one another, they struggled to work together and exchange ideas. “This wasn’t so surprising,” Uzzi says. “It takes time to develop a successful collaboration.” But, when the Q was too high (above 3.2), the work also suffered. The artists all thought in similar ways, which crushed innovation. According to Uzzi, this is what happened on Broadway during the nineteen-twenties, which he made the focus of a separate study. The decade is remembered for its glittering array of talent—Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II, and so on—but Uzzi’s data reveals that ninety per cent of musicals produced during the decade were flops, far above the historical norm. “Broadway had some of the biggest names ever,” Uzzi explains. “But the shows were too full of repeat relationships, and that stifled creativity.”
Uzzi’s work is based on small world theory, originally formulated by Stanley Milgram:
Fred Jones of Peoria, sitting in a sidewalk cafe in Tunis, and needing a light for his cigarette, asks the man at the next table for a match. They fall into conversation; the stranger is an Englishman who, it turns out, spent several months in Detroit studying the operation of an interchangeable-bottle cap-factory. “I know it’s a foolish question,” says Jones, “but did you ever by any chance run into a fellow named Ben Arkadian? He’s an old friend of mine, manages a chain of supermarkets in Detroit. . .”“Arkadian, Arkadian,” the Englishman mutters. “Why, upon my soul, I believe I do! Small chap, very energetic, raised merry hell with the factory over a shipment of defective bottle caps.” “No kidding!” Jones exclaims in amazement. “Good lord, it’s a small world, isn’t it?” (Milgram 1967, p. 61)
We are aware of Milgram’s experiment that led to the notion of ‘six degrees of separation’ to get a letter from a random citizen of Omaha, Nebraska to a stockbroker in Boston, passed along from connection to connection, proving that it is a small world.
Small world networks have two important characteristics: short global separation (six degrees to anyone in the world) and high local clustering (where all the established players on Broadway know each other). And in situations like Broadway plays, all the players form a fully linked clique: they are clustered together for the duration of the play. And of course, Boradway is made up of a large number of these cliques at any time, with some degree of cross-over from one clique to another.
Here ‘s the result of a social scene like Broadway: the more small worldly a scene is, the more links will exists across cliques, so creative ideas will spread rapidly and broadly. (Have you ever noticed how Hollywood will produce two or even three similar movies in the same year?) Secondly, over time, the players increase their connections, and strengthen relationships, leading to high cohesion.
But Uzzi’s empirical examination of Broadway success shows that creativity is linked to a happy middle ground: a high degree of cohesion between many of the players is an advantage, until it grows too large, and then its not. There has to be a tension, a frisson, or outright disagreement — some working through of different perspectives and backgrounds — between those who have been in the clique for a long time, and one or more outsiders. Let’s call this the Sondheim Factor.
The extrapolation to the world of business is direct. Many companies are too chummy, too inbred, and lack the diversity of viewpoints that could lead to real creativity. Companies like Apple have a constant churn, with established developers and business types leaving the company to start new things, and new bright minds showing up with dreams of building the next great thing. Getting the rate of turnover right is one consideration, but at the level of team formation it is more crucial. Injecting random (but high quality) DNA into working teams might be the critical factor to creativity in business, rather than procedural approaches, or simply trying to hire creative people. It may be that the most creative companies are those that look for that sort of tension in teams, that less-than-perfectly aligned not-quite-a-clique dynamic, where creativity arises.