Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking - Susan Cain (2012)
Part I. THE EXTROVERT IDEAL
Chapter 3. WHEN COLLABORATION KILLS CREATIVITY
The Rise of the New Groupthink and the Power of Working Alone
I am a horse for a single harness, not cut out for tandem or teamwork … for well I know that in order to attain any definite goal, it is imperative that one person do the thinking and the commanding.
March 5, 1975. A cold and drizzly evening in Menlo Park, California. Thirty unprepossessing-looking engineers gather in the garage of an unemployed colleague named Gordon French. They call themselves the Homebrew Computer Club, and this is their first meeting. Their mission: to make computers accessible to regular people—no small task at a time when most computers are temperamental SUV-sized machines that only universities and corporations can afford.
The garage is drafty, but the engineers leave the doors open to the damp night air so people can wander inside. In walks an uncertain young man of twenty-four, a calculator designer for Hewlett-Packard. Serious and bespectacled, he has shoulder-length hair and a brown beard. He takes a chair and listens quietly as the others marvel over a new build-it-yourself computer called the Altair 8800, which recently made the cover of Popular Electronics. The Altair isn’t a true personal computer; it’s hard to use, and appeals only to the type of person who shows up at a garage on a rainy Wednesday night to talk about microchips. But it’s an important first step.
The young man, whose name is Stephen Wozniak, is thrilled to hear of the Altair. He’s been obsessed with electronics since the age of three. When he was eleven he came across a magazine article about the first computer, the ENIAC, or Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, and ever since, his dream has been to build a machine so small and easy to use that you could keep it at home. And now, inside this garage, here is news that The Dream—he thinks of it with capital letters—might one day materialize.
As he’ll later recall in his memoir, iWoz, where most of this story appears, Wozniak is also excited to be surrounded by kindred spirits. To the Homebrew crowd, computers are a tool for social justice, and he feels the same way. Not that he talks to anyone at this first meeting—he’s way too shy for that. But that night he goes home and sketches his first design for a personal computer, with a keyboard and a screen just like the kind we use today. Three months later he builds a prototype of that machine. And ten months after that, he and Steve Jobs cofound Apple Computer.
Today Steve Wozniak is a revered figure in Silicon Valley—there’s a street in San Jose, California, named Woz’s Way—and is sometimes called the nerd soul of Apple. He has learned over time to open up and speak publicly, even appearing as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, where he displayed an endearing mixture of stiffness and good cheer. I once saw Wozniak speak at a bookstore in New York City. A standing-room-only crowd showed up bearing their 1970s Apple operating manuals, in honor of all that he had done for them.
But the credit is not Wozniak’s alone; it also belongs to Homebrew. Wozniak identifies that first meeting as the beginning of the computer revolution and one of the most important nights of his life. So if you wanted to replicate the conditions that made Woz so productive, you might point to Homebrew, with its collection of like-minded souls. You might decide that Wozniak’s achievement was a shining example of the collaborative approach to creativity. You might conclude that people who hope to be innovative should work in highly social workplaces.
And you might be wrong.
Consider what Wozniak did right after the meeting in Menlo Park. Did he huddle with fellow club members to work on computer design? No. (Although he did keep attending the meetings, every other Wednesday.) Did he seek out a big, open office space full of cheerful pandemonium in which ideas would cross-pollinate? No. When you read his account of his work process on that first PC, the most striking thing is that he was always by himself.
Wozniak did most of the work inside his cubicle at Hewlett-Packard. He’d arrive around 6:30 a.m. and, alone in the early morning, read engineering magazines, study chip manuals, and prepare designs in his head. After work, he’d go home, make a quick spaghetti or TV dinner, then drive back to the office and work late into the night. He describes this period of quiet midnights and solitary sunrises as “the biggest high ever.” His efforts paid off on the night of June 29, 1975, at around 10:00 p.m., when Woz finished building a prototype of his machine. He hit a few keys on the keyboard—and letters appeared on the screen in front of him. It was the sort of breakthrough moment that most of us can only dream of. And he was alone when it happened.
Intentionally so. In his memoir, he offers this advice to kids who aspire to great creativity:
Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me—they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist, I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.
From 1956 to 1962, an era best remembered for its ethos of stultifying conformity, the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted a series of studies on the nature of creativity. The researchers sought to identify the most spectacularly creative people and then figure out what made them different from everybody else. They assembled a list of architects, mathematicians, scientists, engineers, and writers who had made major contributions to their fields, and invited them to Berkeley for a weekend of personality tests, problem-solving experiments, and probing questions.
Then the researchers did something similar with members of the same professions whose contributions were decidedly less groundbreaking.
One of the most interesting findings, echoed by later studies, was that the more creative people tended to be socially poised introverts. They were interpersonally skilled but “not of an especially sociable or participative temperament.” They described themselves as independent and individualistic. As teens, many had been shy and solitary.
These findings don’t mean that introverts are always more creative than extroverts, but they do suggest that in a group of people who have been extremely creative throughout their lifetimes, you’re likely to find a lot of introverts. Why should this be true? Do quiet personalities come with some ineffable quality that fuels creativity? Perhaps, as we’ll see in chapter 6.
But there’s a less obvious yet surprisingly powerful explanation for introverts’ creative advantage—an explanation that everyone can learn from: introverts prefer to work independently, and solitude can be a catalyst to innovation. As the influential psychologist Hans Eysenck once observed, introversion “concentrates the mind on the tasks in hand, and prevents the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.” In other words, if you’re in the backyard sitting under a tree while everyone else is clinking glasses on the patio, you’re more likely to have an apple fall on your head. (Newton was one of the world’s great introverts. William Wordsworth described him as “A mind forever / Voyaging through strange seas of Thought alone.”)
If this is true—if solitude is an important key to creativity—then we might all want to develop a taste for it. We’d want to teach our kids to work independently. We’d want to give employees plenty of privacy and autonomy. Yet increasingly we do just the opposite.
We like to believe that we live in a grand age of creative individualism. We look back at the midcentury era in which the Berkeley researchers conducted their creativity studies, and feel superior. Unlike the starched-shirted conformists of the 1950s, we hang posters of Einstein on our walls, his tongue stuck out iconoclastically. We consume indie music and films, and generate our own online content. We “think different” (even if we got the idea from Apple Computer’s famous ad campaign).
But the way we organize many of our most important institutions—our schools and our workplaces—tells a very different story. It’s the story of a contemporary phenomenon that I call the New Groupthink—a phenomenon that has the potential to stifle productivity at work and to deprive schoolchildren of the skills they’ll need to achieve excellence in an increasingly competitive world.
The New Groupthink elevates teamwork above all else. It insists that creativity and intellectual achievement come from a gregarious place. It has many powerful advocates. “Innovation—the heart of the knowledge economy—is fundamentally social,” writes the prominent journalist Malcolm Gladwell. “None of us is as smart as all of us,” declares the organizational consultant Warren Bennis, in his book Organizing Genius, whose opening chapter heralds the rise of the “Great Group” and “The End of the Great Man.” “Many jobs that we regard as the province of a single mind actually require a crowd,” muses Clay Shirky in his influential book Here Comes Everybody. Even “Michelangelo had assistants paint part of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.” (Never mind that the assistants were likely interchangeable, while Michelangelo was not.)
The New Groupthink is embraced by many corporations, which increasingly organize workforces into teams, a practice that gained popularity in the early 1990s. By 2000 an estimated half of all U.S. organizations used teams, and today virtually all of them do, according to the management professor Frederick Morgeson. A recent survey found that 91 percent of high-level managers believe that teams are the key to success. The consultant Stephen Harvill told me that of the thirty major organizations he worked with in 2010, including J.C. Penney, Wells Fargo, Dell Computers, and Prudential, he couldn’t think of a single one that didn’t use teams.
Some of these teams are virtual, working together from remote locations, but others demand a tremendous amount of face-to-face interaction, in the form of team-building exercises and retreats, shared online calendars that announce employees’ availability for meetings, and physical workplaces that afford little privacy. Today’s employees inhabit open office plans, in which no one has a room of his or her own, the only walls are the ones holding up the building, and senior executives operate from the center of the boundary-less floor along with everyone else. In fact, over 70 percent of today’s employees work in an open plan; companies using them include Procter & Gamble, Ernst & Young, GlaxoSmithKline, Alcoa, and H.J. Heinz.
The amount of space per employee shrank from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010, according to Peter Miscovich, a managing director at the real estate brokerage firm Jones Lang LaSalle. “There has been a shift from ‘I’ to ‘we’ work,” Steelcase CEO James Hackett told Fast Company magazine in 2005. “Employees used to work alone in ‘I’ settings. Today, working in teams and groups is highly valued. We are designing products to facilitate that.” Rival office manufacturer Herman Miller, Inc., has not only introduced new furniture designed to accommodate “the move toward collaboration and teaming in the workplace” but also moved its own top executives from private offices to an open space. In 2006, the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan demolished a classroom building in part because it wasn’t set up for maximum group interaction.
The New Groupthink is also practiced in our schools, via an increasingly popular method of instruction called “cooperative” or “small group” learning. In many elementary schools, the traditional rows of seats facing the teacher have been replaced with “pods” of four or more desks pushed together to facilitate countless group learning activities. Even subjects like math and creative writing, which would seem to depend on solo flights of thought, are often taught as group projects. In one fourth-grade classroom I visited, a big sign announced the “Rules for Group Work,” including, YOU CAN’T ASK A TEACHER FOR HELP UNLESS EVERYONE IN YOUR GROUP HAS THE SAME QUESTION.
According to a 2002 nationwide survey of more than 1,200 fourth- and eighth-grade teachers, 55 percent of fourth-grade teachers prefer cooperative learning, compared to only 26 percent who favor teacher-directed formats. Only 35 percent of fourth-grade and 29 percent of eighth-grade teachers spend more than half their classroom time on traditional instruction, while 42 percent of fourth-grade and 41 percent of eighth-grade teachers spend at least a quarter of class time on group work. Among younger teachers, small-group learning is even more popular, suggesting that the trend will continue for some time to come.
The cooperative approach has politically progressive roots—the theory is that students take ownership of their education when they learn from one another—but according to elementary school teachers I interviewed at public and private schools in New York, Michigan, and Georgia, it also trains kids to express themselves in the team culture of corporate America. “This style of teaching reflects the business community,” one fifth-grade teacher in a Manhattan public school told me, “where people’s respect for others is based on their verbal abilities, not their originality or insight. You have to be someone who speaks well and calls attention to yourself. It’s an elitism based on something other than merit.” “Today the world of business works in groups, so now the kids do it in school,” a third-grade teacher in Decatur, Georgia, explained. “Cooperative learning enables skills in working as teams—skills that are in dire demand in the workplace,” writes the educational consultant Bruce Williams.
Williams also identifies leadership training as a primary benefit of cooperative learning. Indeed, the teachers I met seemed to pay close attention to their students’ managerial skills. In one public school I visited in downtown Atlanta, a third-grade teacher pointed out a quiet student who likes to “do his own thing.” “But we put him in charge of safety patrol one morning, so he got the chance to be a leader, too,” she assured me.
This teacher was kind and well-intentioned, but I wonder whether students like the young safety officer would be better off if we appreciated that not everyone aspires to be a leader in the conventional sense of the word—that some people wish to fit harmoniously into the group, and others to be independent of it. Often the most highly creative people are in the latter category. As Janet Farrall and Leonie Kronborg write in Leadership Development for the Gifted and Talented:
While extroverts tend to attain leadership in public domains, introverts tend to attain leadership in theoretical and aesthetic fields. Outstanding introverted leaders, such as Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Patrick White and Arthur Boyd, who have created either new fields of thought or rearranged existing knowledge, have spent long periods of their lives in solitude. Hence leadership does not only apply in social situations, but also occurs in more solitary situations such as developing new techniques in the arts, creating new philosophies, writing profound books and making scientific breakthroughs.
The New Groupthink did not arise at one precise moment. Cooperative learning, corporate teamwork, and open office plans emerged at different times and for different reasons. But the mighty force that pulled these trends together was the rise of the World Wide Web, which lent both cool and gravitas to the idea of collaboration. On the Internet, wondrous creations were produced via shared brainpower: Linux, the open-source operating system; Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia; MoveOn.org, the grassroots political movement. These collective productions, exponentially greater than the sum of their parts, were so awe-inspiring that we came to revere the hive mind, the wisdom of crowds, the miracle of crowdsourcing. Collaboration became a sacred concept—the key multiplier for success.
But then we took things a step further than the facts called for. We came to value transparency and to knock down walls—not only online but also in person. We failed to realize that what makes sense for the asynchronous, relatively anonymous interactions of the Internet might not work as well inside the face-to-face, politically charged, acoustically noisy confines of an open-plan office. Instead of distinguishing between online and in-person interaction, we used the lessons of one to inform our thinking about the other.
That’s why, when people talk about aspects of the New Groupthink such as open office plans, they tend to invoke the Internet. “Employees are putting their whole lives up on Facebook and Twitter and everywhere else anyway. There’s no reason they should hide behind a cubicle wall,” Dan Lafontaine, CFO of the social marketing firm Mr. Youth, told NPR. Another management consultant told me something similar: “An office wall is exactly what it sounds like—a barrier. The fresher your methodologies of thinking, the less you want boundaries. The companies who use open office plans are new companies, just like the World Wide Web, which is still a teenager.”
The Internet’s role in promoting face-to-face group work is especially ironic because the early Web was a medium that enabled bands of often introverted individualists—people much like the solitude-craving thought leaders Farrall and Kronborg describe—to come together to subvert and transcend the usual ways of problem-solving. A significant majority of the earliest computer enthusiasts were introverts, according to a study of 1,229 computer professionals working in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia between 1982 and 1984. “It’s a truism in tech that open source attracts introverts,” says Dave W. Smith, a consultant and software developer in Silicon Valley, referring to the practice of producing software by opening the source code to the online public and allowing anyone to copy, improve upon, and distribute it. Many of these people were motivated by a desire to contribute to the broader good, and to see their achievements recognized by a community they valued.
But the earliest open-source creators didn’t share office space—often they didn’t even live in the same country. Their collaborations took place largely in the ether. This is not an insignificant detail. If you had gathered the same people who created Linux, installed them in a giant conference room for a year, and asked them to devise a new operating system, it’s doubtful that anything so revolutionary would have occurred—for reasons we’ll explore in the rest of this chapter.
When the research psychologist Anders Ericsson was fifteen, he took up chess. He was pretty good at it, he thought, trouncing all his classmates during lunchtime matches. Until one day a boy who’d been one of the worst players in the class started to win every match.
Ericsson wondered what had happened. “I really thought about this a lot,” he recalls in an interview with Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code. “Why could that boy, whom I had beaten so easily, now beat me just as easily? I knew he was studying, going to a chess club, but what had happened, really, underneath?”
This is the question that drives Ericsson’s career: How do extraordinary achievers get to be so great at what they do? Ericsson has searched for answers in fields as diverse as chess, tennis, and classical piano.
In a now-famous experiment, he and his colleagues compared three groups of expert violinists at the elite Music Academy in West Berlin. The researchers asked the professors to divide the students into three groups: the “best violinists,” who had the potential for careers as international soloists; the “good violinists”; and a third group training to be violin teachers rather than performers. Then they interviewed the musicians and asked them to keep detailed diaries of their time.
They found a striking difference among the groups. All three groups spent the same amount of time—over fifty hours a week—participating in music-related activities. All three had similar classroom requirements making demands on their time. But the two best groups spent most of their music-related time practicing in solitude: 24.3 hours a week, or 3.5 hours a day, for the best group, compared with only 9.3 hours a week, or 1.3 hours a day, for the worst group. The best violinists rated “practice alone” as the most important of all their music-related activities. Elite musicians—even those who perform in groups—describe practice sessions with their chamber group as “leisure” compared with solo practice, where the real work gets done.
Ericsson and his cohorts found similar effects of solitude when they studied other kinds of expert performers. “Serious study alone” is the strongest predictor of skill for tournament-rated chess players, for example; grandmasters typically spend a whopping five thousand hours—almost five times as many hours as intermediate-level players—studying the game by themselves during their first ten years of learning to play. College students who tend to study alone learn more over time than those who work in groups. Even elite athletes in team sports often spend unusual amounts of time in solitary practice.
What’s so magical about solitude? In many fields, Ericsson told me, it’s only when you’re alone that you can engage in Deliberate Practice, which he has identified as the key to exceptional achievement. When you practice deliberately, you identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly. Practice sessions that fall short of this standard are not only less useful—they’re counterproductive. They reinforce existing cognitive mechanisms instead of improving them.
Deliberate Practice is best conducted alone for several reasons. It takes intense concentration, and other people can be distracting. It requires deep motivation, often self-generated. But most important, it involves working on the task that’s most challenging to you personally. Only when you’re alone, Ericsson told me, can you “go directly to the part that’s challenging to you. If you want to improve what you’re doing, you have to be the one who generates the move. Imagine a group class—you’re the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time.”
To see Deliberate Practice in action, we need look no further than the story of Stephen Wozniak. The Homebrew meeting was the catalyst that inspired him to build that first PC, but the knowledge base and work habits that made it possible came from another place entirely: Woz had deliberately practiced engineering ever since he was a little kid. (Ericsson says that it takes approximately ten thousand hours of Deliberate Practice to gain true expertise, so it helps to start young.)
In iWoz, Wozniak describes his childhood passion for electronics, and unintentionally recounts all the elements of Deliberate Practice that Ericsson emphasizes. First, he was motivated: his father, a Lockheed engineer, had taught Woz that engineers could change people’s lives and were “among the key people in the world.” Second, he built his expertise step by painstaking step. Because he entered countless science fairs, he says,
I acquired a central ability that was to help me through my entire career: patience. I’m serious. Patience is usually so underrated. I mean, for all those projects, from third grade all the way to eighth grade, I just learned things gradually, figuring out how to put electronic devices together without so much as cracking a book.… I learned to not worry so much about the outcome, but to concentrate on the step I was on and to try to do it as perfectly as I could when I was doing it.
Third, Woz often worked alone. This was not necessarily by choice. Like many technically inclined kids, he took a painful tumble down the social ladder when he got to junior high school. As a boy he’d been admired for his science prowess, but now nobody seemed to care. He hated small talk, and his interests were out of step with those of his peers. A black-and-white photo from this period shows Woz, hair closely cropped, grimacing intensely, pointing proudly at his “science-fair-winning Adder/Subtractor,” a boxlike contraption of wires, knobs, and gizmos. But the awkwardness of those years didn’t deter him from pursuing his dream; it probably nurtured it. He would never have learned so much about computers, Woz says now, if he hadn’t been too shy to leave the house.
No one would choose this sort of painful adolescence, but the fact is that the solitude of Woz’s teens, and the single-minded focus on what would turn out to be a lifelong passion, is typical for highly creative people. According to the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who between 1990 and 1995 studied the lives of ninety-one exceptionally creative people in the arts, sciences, business, and government, many of his subjects were on the social margins during adolescence, partly because “intense curiosity or focused interest seems odd to their peers.” Teens who are too gregarious to spend time alone often fail to cultivate their talents “because practicing music or studying math requires a solitude they dread.” Madeleine L’Engle, the author of the classic young adult novel A Wrinkle in Time and more than sixty other books, says that she would never have developed into such a bold thinker had she not spent so much of her childhood alone with books and ideas. As a young boy, Charles Darwin made friends easily but preferred to spend his time taking long, solitary nature walks. (As an adult he was no different. “My dear Mr. Babbage,” he wrote to the famous mathematician who had invited him to a dinner party, “I am very much obliged to you for sending me cards for your parties, but I am afraid of accepting them, for I should meet some people there, to whom I have sworn by all the saints in Heaven, I never go out.”)
But exceptional performance depends not only on the groundwork we lay through Deliberate Practice; it also requires the right working conditions. And in contemporary workplaces, these are surprisingly hard to come by.
One of the side benefits of being a consultant is getting intimate access to many different work environments. Tom DeMarco, a principal of the Atlantic Systems Guild team of consultants, had walked around a good number of offices in his time, and he noticed that some workspaces were a lot more densely packed than others. He wondered what effect all that social interaction had on performance.
To find out, DeMarco and his colleague Timothy Lister devised a study called the Coding War Games. The purpose of the games was to identify the characteristics of the best and worst computer programmers; more than six hundred developers from ninety-two different companies participated. Each designed, coded, and tested a program, working in his normal office space during business hours. Each participant was also assigned a partner from the same company. The partners worked separately, however, without any communication, a feature of the games that turned out to be critical.
When the results came in, they revealed an enormous performance gap. The best outperformed the worst by a 10:1 ratio. The top programmers were also about 2.5 times better than the median. When DeMarco and Lister tried to figure out what accounted for this astonishing range, the factors that you’d think would matter—such as years of experience, salary, even the time spent completing the work—had little correlation to outcome. Programmers with ten years’ experience did no better than those with two years. The half who performed above the median earned less than 10 percent more than the half below—even though they were almost twice as good. The programmers who turned in “zero-defect” work took slightly less, not more, time to complete the exercise than those who made mistakes.
It was a mystery with one intriguing clue: programmers from the same companies performed at more or less the same level, even though they hadn’t worked together. That’s because top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption. Sixty-two percent of the best performers said that their workspace was acceptably private, compared to only 19 percent of the worst performers; 76 percent of the worst performers but only 38 percent of the top performers said that people often interrupted them needlessly.
The Coding War Games are well known in tech circles, but DeMarco and Lister’s findings reach beyond the world of computer programmers. A mountain of recent data on open-plan offices from many different industries corroborates the results of the games. Open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They’re associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated, and insecure. Open-plan workers are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure and elevated stress levels and to get the flu; they argue more with their colleagues; they worry about coworkers eavesdropping on their phone calls and spying on their computer screens. They have fewer personal and confidential conversations with colleagues. They’re often subject to loud and uncontrollable noise, which raises heart rates; releases cortisol, the body’s fight-or-flight “stress” hormone; and makes people socially distant, quick to anger, aggressive, and slow to help others.
Indeed, excessive stimulation seems to impede learning: a recent study found that people learn better after a quiet stroll through the woods than after a noisy walk down a city street. Another study, of 38,000 knowledge workers across different sectors, found that the simple act of being interrupted is one of the biggest barriers to productivity. Even multitasking, that prized feat of modern-day office warriors, turns out to be a myth. Scientists now know that the brain is incapable of paying attention to two things at the same time. What looks like multitasking is really switching back and forth between multiple tasks, which reduces productivity and increases mistakes by up to 50 percent.
Many introverts seem to know these things instinctively, and resist being herded together. Backbone Entertainment, a video game design company in Oakland, California, initially used an open office plan but found that their game developers, many of whom were introverts, were unhappy. “It was one big warehouse space, with just tables, no walls, and everyone could see each other,” recalls Mike Mika, the former creative director. “We switched over to cubicles and were worried about it—you’d think in a creative environment that people would hate that. But it turns out they prefer having nooks and crannies they can hide away in and just be away from everybody.”
Something similar happened at Reebok International when, in 2000, the company consolidated 1,250 employees in their new headquarters in Canton, Massachusetts. The managers assumed that their shoe designers would want office space with plenty of access to each other so they could brainstorm (an idea they probably picked up when they were getting their MBAs). Luckily, they consulted first with the shoe designers themselves, who told them that actually what they needed was peace and quiet so they could concentrate.
This would not have come as news to Jason Fried, cofounder of the web application company 37signals. For ten years, beginning in 2000, Fried asked hundreds of people (mostly designers, programmers, and writers) where they liked to work when they needed to get something done. He found that they went anywhere but their offices, which were too noisy and full of interruptions. That’s why, of Fried’s sixteen employees, only eight live in Chicago, where 37signals is based, and even they are not required to show up for work, even for meetings. Especially not for meetings, which Fried views as “toxic.” Fried is not anti-collaboration—37signals’ home page touts its products’ ability to make collaboration productive and pleasant. But he prefers passive forms of collaboration like e-mail, instant messaging, and online chat tools. His advice for other employers? “Cancel your next meeting,” he advises. “Don’t reschedule it. Erase it from memory.” He also suggests “No-Talk Thursdays,” one day a week in which employees aren’t allowed to speak to each other.
The people Fried interviewed were saying out loud what creative people have always known. Kafka, for example, couldn’t bear to be near even his adoring fiancée while he worked:
You once said that you would like to sit beside me while I write. Listen, in that case I could not write at all. For writing means revealing oneself to excess; that utmost of self-revelation and surrender, in which a human being, when involved with others, would feel he was losing himself, and from which, therefore, he will always shrink as long as he is in his right mind.… That is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around one when one writes, why even night is not night enough.
Even the considerably more cheerful Theodor Geisel (otherwise known as Dr. Seuss) spent his workdays ensconced in his private studio, the walls lined with sketches and drawings, in a bell-tower outside his La Jolla, California, house. Geisel was a much more quiet man than his jocular rhymes suggest. He rarely ventured out in public to meet his young readership, fretting that kids would expect a merry, outspoken, Cat in the Hat–like figure, and would be disappointed with his reserved personality. “In mass, [children] terrify me,” he admitted.
If personal space is vital to creativity, so is freedom from “peer pressure.” Consider the story of the legendary advertising man Alex Osborn. Today Osborn’s name rings few bells, but during the first half of the twentieth century he was the kind of larger-than-life renaissance man who mesmerized his contemporaries. Osborn was a founding partner of the advertising agency Batten, Barton, Durstine, and Osborn (BBDO), but it was as an author that he really made his mark, beginning with the day in 1938 that a magazine editor invited him to lunch and asked what his hobby was.
“Imagination,” replied Osborn.
“Mr. Osborn,” said the editor, “you must do a book on that. It’s a job that has been waiting to be done all these years. There is no subject of greater importance. You must give it the time and energy and thoroughness it deserves.”
And so Mr. Osborn did. He wrote several books during the 1940s and 1950s, in fact, each tackling a problem that had vexed him in his capacity as head of BBDO: his employees were not creative enough. They had good ideas, Osborn believed, but were loath to share them for fear of their colleagues’ judgment.
For Osborn, the solution was not to have his employees work alone, but rather to remove the threat of criticism from group work. He invented the concept of brainstorming, a process in which group members generate ideas in a nonjudgmental atmosphere. Brainstorming had four rules:
1. Don’t judge or criticize ideas.
2. Be freewheeling. The wilder the idea, the better.
3. Go for quantity. The more ideas you have, the better.
4. Build on the ideas of fellow group members.
Osborn believed passionately that groups—once freed from the shackles of social judgment—produced more and better ideas than did individuals working in solitude, and he made grand claims for his favored method. “The quantitative results of group brainstorming are beyond question,” he wrote. “One group produced 45 suggestions for a home-appliance promotion, 56 ideas for a money-raising campaign, 124 ideas on how to sell more blankets. In another case, 15 groups brainstormed one and the same problem and produced over 800 ideas.”
Osborn’s theory had great impact, and company leaders took up brainstorming with enthusiasm. To this day, it’s common for anyone who spends time in corporate America to find himself occasionally cooped up with colleagues in a room full of whiteboards, markers, and a preternaturally peppy facilitator encouraging everyone to free-associate.
There’s only one problem with Osborn’s breakthrough idea: group brainstorming doesn’t actually work. One of the first studies to demonstrate this was conducted in 1963. Marvin Dunnette, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, gathered forty-eight research scientists and forty-eight advertising executives, all of them male employees of Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (otherwise known as 3M, inventors of the Post-it), and asked them to participate in both solitary and group brainstorming sessions. Dunnette was confident that the executives would benefit from the group process. He was less sure that the research scientists, whom he considered more introverted, would profit from group work.
Dunnette divided each set of forty-eight men into twelve groups of four. Each foursome was given a problem to brainstorm, such as the benefits or difficulties that would arise from being born with an extra thumb. Each man was also given a similar problem to brainstorm on his own. Then Dunnette and his team counted all the ideas, comparing those produced by the groups with those generated by people working individually. In order to compare apples with apples, Dunnette pooled the ideas of each individual together with those of three other individuals, as if they had been working in “nominal” groups of four. The researchers also measured the quality of the ideas, rating them on a “Probability Scale” of 0 through 4.
The results were unambiguous. The men in twenty-three of the twenty-four groups produced more ideas when they worked on their own than when they worked as a group. They also produced ideas of equal or higher quality when working individually. And the advertising executives were no better at group work than the presumably introverted research scientists.
Since then, some forty years of research has reached the same startling conclusion. Studies have shown that performance gets worse as group size increases: groups of nine generate fewer and poorer ideas compared to groups of six, which do worse than groups of four. The “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” writes the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”
The one exception to this is online brainstorming. Groups brainstorming electronically, when properly managed, not only do better than individuals, research shows; the larger the group, the better it performs. The same is true of academic research—professors who work together electronically, from different physical locations, tend to produce research that is more influential than those either working alone or collaborating face-to-face.
This shouldn’t surprise us; as we’ve said, it was the curious power of electronic collaboration that contributed to the New Groupthink in the first place. What created Linux, or Wikipedia, if not a gigantic electronic brainstorming session? But we’re so impressed by the power of online collaboration that we’ve come to overvalue all group work at the expense of solo thought. We fail to realize that participating in an online working group is a form of solitude all its own. Instead we assume that the success of online collaborations will be replicated in the face-to-face world.
Indeed, after all these years of evidence that conventional brainstorming groups don’t work, they remain as popular as ever. Participants in brainstorming sessions usually believe that their group performed much better than it actually did, which points to a valuable reason for their continued popularity—group brainstorming makes people feel attached. A worthy goal, so long as we understand that social glue, as opposed to creativity, is the principal benefit.
Psychologists usually offer three explanations for the failure of group brainstorming. The first is social loafing: in a group, some individuals tend to sit back and let others do the work. The second is production blocking: only one person can talk or produce an idea at once, while the other group members are forced to sit passively. And the third is evaluation apprehension, meaning the fear of looking stupid in front of one’s peers.
Osborn’s “rules” of brainstorming were meant to neutralize this anxiety, but studies show that the fear of public humiliation is a potent force. During the 1988–89 basketball season, for example, two NCAA basketball teams played eleven games without any spectators, owing to a measles outbreak that led their schools to quarantine all students. Both teams played much better (higher free-throw percentages, for example) without any fans, even adoring home-team fans, to unnerve them.
The behavioral economist Dan Ariely noticed a similar phenomenon when he conducted a study asking thirty-nine participants to solve anagram puzzles, either alone at their desks or with others watching. Ariely predicted that the participants would do better in public because they’d be more motivated. But they performed worse. An audience may be rousing, but it’s also stressful.
The problem with evaluation apprehension is that there’s not much we can do about it. You’d think you could overcome it with will or training or a set of group process rules like Alex Osborn’s. But recent research in neuroscience suggests that the fear of judgment runs much deeper and has more far-reaching implications than we ever imagined.
Between 1951 and 1956, just as Osborn was promoting the power of group brainstorming, a psychologist named Solomon Asch conducted a series of now-famous experiments on the dangers of group influence. Asch gathered student volunteers into groups and had them take a vision test. He showed them a picture of three lines of varying lengths and asked questions about how the lines compared with one another: which was longer, which one matched the length of a fourth line, and so on. His questions were so simple that 95 percent of students answered every question correctly.
But when Asch planted actors in the groups, and the actors confidently volunteered the same incorrect answer, the number of students who gave all correct answers plunged to 25 percent. That is, a staggering 75 percent of the participants went along with the group’s wrong answer to at least one question.
The Asch experiments demonstrated the power of conformity at exactly the time that Osborn was trying to release us from its chains. What they didn’t tell us was why we were so prone to conform. What was going on in the minds of the kowtowers? Had their perception of the lines’ lengths been altered by peer pressure, or did they knowingly give wrong answers for fear of being the odd one out? For decades, psychologists puzzled over this question.
Today, with the help of brain-scanning technology, we may be getting closer to the answer. In 2005 an Emory University neuroscientist named Gregory Berns decided to conduct an updated version of Asch’s experiments. Berns and his team recruited thirty-two volunteers, men and women between the ages of nineteen and forty-one. The volunteers played a game in which each group member was shown two different three-dimensional objects on a computer screen and asked to decide whether the first object could be rotated to match the second. The experimenters used an fMRI scanner to take snapshots of the volunteers’ brains as they conformed to or broke with group opinion.
The results were both disturbing and illuminating. First, they corroborated Asch’s findings. When the volunteers played the game on their own, they gave the wrong answer only 13.8 percent of the time. But when they played with a group whose members gave unanimously wrong answers, they agreed with the group 41 percent of the time.
But Berns’s study also shed light on exactly why we’re such conformists. When the volunteers played alone, the brain scans showed activity in a network of brain regions including the occipital cortex and parietal cortex, which are associated with visual and spatial perception, and in the frontal cortex, which is associated with conscious decision-making. But when they went along with their group’s wrong answer, their brain activity revealed something very different.
Remember, what Asch wanted to know was whether people conformed despite knowing that the group was wrong, or whether their perceptions had been altered by the group. If the former was true, Berns and his team reasoned, then they should see more brain activity in the decision-making prefrontal cortex. That is, the brain scans would pick up the volunteers deciding consciously to abandon their own beliefs to fit in with the group. But if the brain scans showed heightened activity in regions associated with visual and spatial perception, this would suggest that the group had somehow managed to change the individual’s perceptions.
That was exactly what happened—the conformists showed less brain activity in the frontal, decision-making regions and more in the areas of the brain associated with perception. Peer pressure, in other words, is not only unpleasant, but can actually change your view of a problem.
These early findings suggest that groups are like mind-altering substances. If the group thinks the answer is A, you’re much more likely to believe that A is correct, too. It’s not that you’re saying consciously, “Hmm, I’m not sure, but they all think the answer’s A, so I’ll go with that.” Nor are you saying, “I want them to like me, so I’ll just pretend that the answer’s A.” No, you are doing something much more unexpected—and dangerous. Most of Berns’s volunteers reported having gone along with the group because “they thought that they had arrived serendipitously at the same correct answer.” They were utterly blind, in other words, to how much their peers had influenced them.
What does this have to do with social fear? Well, remember that the volunteers in the Asch and Berns studies didn’t always conform. Sometimes they picked the right answer despite their peers’ influence. And Berns and his team found something very interesting about these moments. They were linked to heightened activation in the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with upsetting emotions such as the fear of rejection.
Berns refers to this as “the pain of independence,” and it has serious implications. Many of our most important civic institutions, from elections to jury trials to the very idea of majority rule, depend on dissenting voices. But when the group is literally capable of changing our perceptions, and when to stand alone is to activate primitive, powerful, and unconscious feelings of rejection, then the health of these institutions seems far more vulnerable than we think.
But of course I’ve been simplifying the case against face-to-face collaboration. Steve Wozniak collaborated with Steve Jobs, after all; without their pairing, there would be no Apple today. Every pair bond between mother and father, between parent and child, is an act of creative collaboration. Indeed, studies show that face-to-face interactions create trust in a way that online interactions can’t. Research also suggests that population density is correlated with innovation; despite the advantages of quiet walks in the woods, people in crowded cities benefit from the web of interactions that urban life offers.
I have experienced this phenomenon personally. When I was getting ready to write this book, I carefully set up my home office, complete with uncluttered desk, file cabinets, free counter space, and plenty of natural light—and then felt too cut off from the world to type a single keystroke there. Instead, I wrote most of this book on a laptop at my favorite densely packed neighborhood café. I did this for exactly the reasons that champions of the New Groupthink might suggest: the mere presence of other people helped my mind to make associative leaps. The coffee shop was full of people bent over their own computers, and if the expressions of rapt concentration on their faces were any indication, I wasn’t the only one getting a lot of work done.
But the café worked as my office because it had specific attributes that are absent from many modern schools and workplaces. It was social, yet its casual, come-and-go-as-you-please nature left me free from unwelcome entanglements and able to “deliberately practice” my writing. I could toggle back and forth between observer and social actor as much as I wanted. I could also control my environment. Each day I chose the location of my table—in the center of the room or along the perimeter—depending on whether I wanted to be seen as well as to see. And I had the option to leave whenever I wanted peace and quiet to edit what I’d written that day. Usually I was ready to exercise this right after only a few hours—not the eight, ten, or fourteen hours that many office dwellers put in.
The way forward, I’m suggesting, is not to stop collaborating face-to-face, but to refine the way we do it. For one thing, we should actively seek out symbiotic introvert-extrovert relationships, in which leadership and other tasks are divided according to people’s natural strengths and temperaments. The most effective teams are composed of a healthy mix of introverts and extroverts, studies show, and so are many leadership structures.
We also need to create settings in which people are free to circulate in a shifting kaleidoscope of interactions, and to disappear into their private workspaces when they want to focus or simply be alone. Our schools should teach children the skills to work with others—cooperative learning can be effective when practiced well and in moderation—but also the time and training they need to deliberately practice on their own. It’s also vital to recognize that many people—especially introverts like Steve Wozniak—need extra quiet and privacy in order to do their best work.
Some companies are starting to understand the value of silence and solitude, and are creating “flexible” open plans that offer a mix of solo workspaces, quiet zones, casual meeting areas, cafés, reading rooms, computer hubs, and even “streets” where people can chat casually with each other without interrupting others’ workflow. At Pixar Animation Studios, the sixteen-acre campus is built around a football-field-sized atrium housing mailboxes, a cafeteria, and even bathrooms. The idea is to encourage as many casual, chance encounters as possible. At the same time, employees are encouraged to make their individual offices, cubicles, desks, and work areas their own and to decorate them as they wish. Similarly, at Microsoft, many employees enjoy their own private offices, yet they come with sliding doors, movable walls, and other features that allow occupants to decide when they want to collaborate and when they need private time to think. These kinds of diverse workspaces benefit introverts as well as extroverts, the systems design researcher Matt Davis told me, because they offer more spaces to retreat to than traditional open-plan offices.
I suspect that Wozniak himself would approve of these developments. Before he created the Apple PC, Woz designed calculators at Hewlett-Packard, a job he loved in part because HP made it so easy to chat with others. Every day at 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. management wheeled in donuts and coffee, and people would socialize and swap ideas. What set these interactions apart was how low-key and relaxed they were. In iWoz, he recalls HP as a meritocracy where it didn’t matter what you looked like, where there was no premium on playing social games, and where no one pushed him from his beloved engineering work into management. That was what collaboration meant for Woz: the ability to share a donut and a brainwave with his laid-back, nonjudgmental, poorly dressed colleagues—who minded not a whit when he disappeared into his cubicle to get the real work done.