4/7 – The Perils of Pernicious Polarities: Contemplating Creativity, Collaboration, and Complexity.

Column / April - June 2015

Alfonso Montuori

Alfonso Montuori

Alfonso Montuori

Back in the late 80s and 90s I ranted and raved in print and off about the fact that our understanding of creativity in the US was focused exclusively on individuals—inevitably the lone male genius–and there was no recognition of creative interactions, of musical groups, theater productions, movie making, and the performing arts in general, let alone women (Montuori, 1989; Montuori & Purser, 1995, 1999).  A few decades later, the trend has shifted. Collaboration is in, lone geniuses are out. Open-plan offices are in, cubicles are out. Brainstorming 2.0 is in, solitude is out. It’s We-think and Open-Source innovation all the way (Leadbeter, 2009). Americans have apparently embraced collaboration to such an extent that a few years ago, Susan Cain, soon to be the author of a popular book on introverts, called it the new groupthink (Cain, 2012).

Cain rightly critiques the superficial aspects of the embrace of collaboration and particularly the way it’s been forced down people’s throats in schools and offices. Clearly not a fan of the new trend, she tells us that the best work is done alone. The problem I have with this—both with the collaboration trend and Cain’s counterargument—is that it is often too polarizing. It’s locked in either/or thinking even when it tries not to be. In the case of the collaboration craze it’s also often forcing people to be “collaborative” when it’s not clear what collaboration really means except that everybody has to be involved with everything, particularly because the new (collaboration) is mostly identified as being in opposition to the old (the lone genius), which was all about one person, of course. Goodbye to the “great leader,” hello to participation and endless “input.” Cain gives examples of this forced gregariousness and they’re not pretty, particularly for a stone-cold introvert like me. Open-plan workspaces with no privacy at all are one horrifying example, although their mostly dismal failure means they are fortunately already on the way out. But one doesn’t have to have a mind sharpened by subtle hermeneutics to see that Cain herself finds the idea of collaboration rather trivial when it comes to creativity.

I am a card-carrying loner. I have frankly not been much of a fan of committees, “teams,” and so-called “brainstorming” over the years. When I received a 360 feedback about 15 years ago one of the big take home messages for me was that I should make an effort not to drum, surreptitiously read a book, and generally appear so completely uninterested during committee meetings. Fair enough. But as much as I agree with the right to privacy, I part company with Cain when she essentially argues that collaboration has nothing to offer creativity, which “really” happens in solitude.

I remember when I first saw the slogan “there is no I in team.” It’s not that I feared losing my individuality, or resented the fact that I would not be allowed to shine in front of my colleagues. If anything, I was most interested in disappearing. It seemed like a recipe for disaster, given my experience, and a slogan that would fit rather nicely in an authoritarian system. In fact, it sounded like the slogans I heard when I lived in China in the mid-80’s. After all, in a cheerful little piece entitled Combat Liberalism Mao Zedong (Mao, 1961) had argued that liberalism

stems from the petty self-interest of the bourgeoisie which puts personal interest foremost and the interest of the revolution in the second place. It is a corrosive which disrupts unity, undermines solidarity, induces inactivity, and creates dissension.  (A communist) should be more concerned about the Party and the masses than about the individual and more concerned about others than about himself. Only then can he be considered a communist. (pp. 515-516).

That’s pretty straightforward, I think. Now in our environmentally conscious times we also see many new variations on this slogan, one of which is “from ego to eco.” This slogan is often accompanied by two drawings. The first is a hierarchy with a man at the top. The second is a circle with a series of figures that are so un-hierarchical they seem to be floating miraculously in the luminiferous ether. There is a pig floating above a woman who in turn is hovering precariously between a snail and an octopus. In some variants of this ego to eco poster, under the hierarchy we read WRONG, and under the circle with the floating woman and the pig we read RIGHT. That’s also pretty straightforward, I think. It’s not easy being green, certainly not if it involves developing our skills for levitation.

The point I’m making here, if rather laboriously, is that it’s easy to fall victim to oppositional thinking. It’s one thing to critique the myth of the lone genius, it’s another to deny the relevance of the individual, of solitude, and say goodbye to “I” and “ego.” And let’s face it, if it were really so easy to say goodbye to “I” and to “ego,” we probably wouldn’t need so many self-help seminars.

I agree with Cain that we may have gone too far, certainly if we’re talking about forced collaboration. I’m fine with her suggestion that creative individuals include a lot of introverts and that creativity requires periods of solitude. But she loses me with an excessive ping- ponging back in the other direction when it becomes clear she sees no real value in collaboration. I’m all for solitude. I spend 70% of my day on my own, surrounded by books. But I am not a misanthrope, and I do enjoy spending time with people. In fact, there are some people whose company I very much enjoy, and to a large extent they’re the reason why I have been pushing this “social creativity” thing for years now.

The evolution of creativity remains a fascinating phenomenon for me. It documents how we have constructed our understanding and practices of creativity over time. It illuminates what, in turn, that construction says about how we think, who we are, and what we feel strongly about. It’s clear, for instance, that our view of the lone genius emerged as a result of valorizing of the individual during the Renaissance, then found its greatest articulation with the Romantics, became institutionalized with American individualism, followed by a routinization of charisma, if you will, in the “Genius Bar” at my Apple store. I became particularly fascinated by how we construct our understanding of complex phenomena when I noticed the blind spots in the understanding of creativity, most notably collaborative creativity—no research on bands! How could that be, with all these brilliant people working on creativity?

Two examples from my own experience illustrate some of what’s missing for me. The first is that as a musician in London I loved spending hours improvising with my friend Eddie Kulak, a brilliant pianist. Out of that experience we created a band that was a joy and also eventually became a bit of a cross for both of us. Of course we now look back on it with great fondness. I think we would both agree that our playing was often better when we played together rather than with other people, in the sense that—through the miracle of recording—we could listen back and often shake our heads, laugh, and wonder where that particular flurry of notes came from. And together we also sparked each other’s creativity to produce material for our band in a way that we had not been able to do on our own, with other bands, and in other musical partnerships.

Later on in life I have enjoyed the intellectual equivalent of these jam sessions in my long walk-and-talks with a small number of friends and colleagues. This is not brainstorming, not committees or “teams.” It’s not forced. This is two people walking around Tokyo or Chicago or Monterey, occasionally stopping in cafes, and talking about ideas and watching the sparks fly, getting excited and inspired and opening up new possibilities and directions…and then going home to digest it all in solitude, in the same way that Eddie would write songs after our jam sessions, and I would explore musical riffs, themes, and arrangement ideas. In other words, it’s a much more informal but deep creative and intellectual conviviality that simply has nothing to do with brainstorming or committees, and involves both interaction and solitude. I think this something most of the people I’ve ever spoken about it can relate to, and yet I have found that our thinking about creativity, collaboration, and solitude is seemingly trapped in these oppositional categories rather than drawing on actual experience.

For too long this sort informal creative conviviality has been completely ignored by the research. The assumption was that the only way one could have collaborative creativity was in some kind of formal setting, even using explicit rules. This is clearly not the case, and most certainly the result of a very un-relational view of the world. As an antidote, I highly recommend Tony Kushner’s wonderful piece in which he argues that it is in fact a “fiction” that he wrote Angels in America on his own (Kushner, 1997). Kushner’s reflections do not just apply to playwrights, of course. Joshua Wolf Shenk’s fascinating book Powers of Two, is the first really solid popular treatment of creative friendships and dyadic collaborations, and Vera John-Steiner’s a more academic one (John-Steiner, 2006; Shenk, 2014).  For a more rollicking, alcohol-fueled version, with a few more participants, there’s always Plato’s Symposium.

I have long been fascinated by the possibilities of organized but subtle and generative approaches to creative collaboration, starting with scenario planning and search conferences, and now with “the art of hosting,” an umbrella for a rich range of collaborative processes. Because the ability to think and work together in a way that is generative rather than destructively conflictual, is essential in these contentious times, and one we’re not particular skilled at, it’s vital to have processes that foster intelligent, creative collaboration.  It’s also important to bring forward images of creative groups to show that there really is such a thing. I believe this is why the so-called jazz metaphor has become quite popular.

The second example from my own experience is, of course, musical groups. Solitude. Work on your own. Fair enough. But again, this assumes the work in question can actually be done mostly on one’s own. At the end of her NYT article, Cain returns to the example of introvert Steve Wozniak: at work he shares a donut with colleagues and then disappears back into solitude to do the “real work.”  That, it appears, is the extent of the “collaboration:” Sharing donuts and coffee and exchanging some thoughts. Not clear what they thoughts about, really (“Is this Peet’s?”). Certainly not the creative conviviality I had in mind.

So what about bands, theater groups, movies? Our understanding of creativity is still shaped by a focus on writers, composers, painters, and others who can be said to work alone. The lack of representation of the performing arts, the result of having the individual as the unit of analysis, has dramatically skewed our understanding of creativity. Particularly but not exclusively in bands that value improvisation, it’s all about interactions. The sound of the band is an emergent property of the interaction of the musicians. Yes, you can practice and study at home, and in fact you had better, but on the bandstand you almost always have to show up with others, unless you’re doing a solo concert.  Miles Davis wasn’t exactly an extrovert. John Coltrane wasn’t either. But in order to do what they did, they always had collaborators—great bands, Miles’s celebrated partnership with Gil Evans.

The sociologist Howard Becker has written eloquently about collaboration in the arts in his classic book Art Worlds (Becker, 2008). Never one to be led by the nose by theoretical frameworks and ideologies, Howie starts the book with the endless list of credits we see at the end of a movie. What about these people? From the costumes to the music to the cinematographer to the director and actors to the  “best boy” and the “grip” (the latter two being my own personal favorites), it’s blatantly clear the final product requires people working together, no matter how brilliant a Fellini or a Scorsese might be. And that doesn’t even address what’s needed to get the movie into your theater, and let you know it’s there.

It’s not just the collaborative dimension of creativity that interests me. It’s the way the self is understood and defined in the discourse of self-society, individual-collaboration oppositions. Because it’s framed as self versus society, individual versus collaboration, we have these polarized categories that will prevent us from thinking of the two terms together, and seeing how they play out in the world. Echoing Kushner, social psychologists Markus and Conner (Markus & Conner, 2013) write that “You can’t be a self – even an independent self – by yourself” (p. 44). The fascinating question of the nature of the individual, and whether we ultimately see the individual as a closed system or an open system, deserves more attention than I can give it here, but I believe it is a central question of our time and one that lies at the root of many of the political oppositions and extremes we’re seeing in the US today. A relational, open system view is emerging, and in the process we should not be surprised that “the virtue of selfishness” is being extolled in the backlash. It’s shouldn’t surprise us that the topics conservatives have said the most bizarre things about are women and the environment, both traditional standard-bearers of a more relational view of the world (Merchant, 1980). But it should also not surprise us that democrats have focused mostly on (relational) care and fairness, on supporting those in need, and thus far have not been particularly inspirational when it comes the role of individual achievement and initiative (Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009; Haidt, 2013; Lakoff, 1996).

For Americans the issues of creativity, individualism, and collaboration touch on a central aspect of our cultural and personal identity. We can see individualism, so central to the sense of being American, was closely associated with heroic figures, mythologized cultural icons like John Wayne and the lone Private Investigator. When I first started writing about social, contextual, relational creativity, the response was often disbelief (“social creativity is an oxymoron”) or anger (“an attack against the dignity of the individual in favor of social determinism”). Today things have changed. Research shows that Millennials see creativity as much more relational (Montuori & Donnelly, 2013). They find this collaborative creativity completely normal. My sense is that there is a massive shake up going on in America’s collective mythology and sense of identity, and it has to do with the transformation of American individualism and the emergence of a more relational view of self and world (Montuori, 1989; Ogilvy, 1977, 2002; Spretnak, 2011). Central to this will be the shift from the lone male as the dominant image of the “person” to a view that includes both women and men, and not exclusively white women and men (Barron, 1999; Eisler, 1987; Montuori, 1997; Montuori & Conti, 1993; Thompson, 2013).

In a time of social, cultural, and economic transition such as ours, there is a dramatic increase in polarization and heightening of oppositions. Philosopher Jay Ogilvy (Ogilvy, 1989) wrote that

(t)he pressure toward postmodernism is building from our lack of ability to overcome certain dualisms that are built into modern ways of knowing. P.9

The dualisms are coming to light, and sometimes in extreme forms. This is polarization is surely a harbinger of change, but it also leads to frustration and conceptual as well as political impasse. It’s easier to think dualistically than to think in a way that recognizes and indeed promotes generative complexity in the form of a more nuanced understanding of the world. This will require a more radical approach, meaning one that goes to the roots of the issues we’re dealing with. In this case, the nature of creativity, agency, individualism and collectivism and their social scientific correlates atomism and holism. The taken-for-granted way in which we’ve been taught to think will require exploration and reconceptualization. If we are re-inventing the world, we need to understand where we came from and how we got here. Edgar Morin (Morin, 2008) has written that

 …our thinking is ruled by a profound and hidden paradigm without our being aware of it. We believe we see what is real; but we see in reality only what this paradigm allows us to see, and we obscure what it requires us not to see (p. 86).

 Making that paradigm explicit, addressing its blind spots and limitations, and illustrating specifically how it has shaped our thought and action, can assist us to not replicate its problematic aspects in our attempts to create alternatives. Articulating alternatives requires complex thought if we are not to duplicate the very dualisms built into modern ways of knowing.

Ogilvy has made a very significant contribution to the individualism/collectivism question in a series of works (Ogilvy, 1977, 1992, 1995, 2002). He argues that at the heart of this historical opposition lie two very different ways of seeing the world, two different ontologies (Ogilvy, 1992).

As long as both individualists and collectivists assume the ontological primacy of either the individual or the collective, and are able to support that ontological primacy with a corresponding epistemology or paradigm, then (…) the twain shall never meet. (p.229)

He goes on to write that

The way out lies not in opting for one ontology or the other, but in appreciating the ontological, paradigmatic character of the conflict. (…) Rather than seeing the individual and the collective as ontologically given and concrete, individuality and collectivity can be recast as equal and opposite abstractions from the concrete lives of everyday communities. (p.229) (italics in the original)

What we’re dealing with are two different ways of seeing the world, starting with what we might call two different units of analysis, the individual and the collective.  If they are ontologies, it means they are descriptions of the way we think the world really is, and consequently two ways we think about being in the world. But Ogilvy reminds us that individualism and collectivism are “abstractions from the concrete lives of everyday communities.

These abstractions also create worlds, of course, as well as policies and political platforms, in the recursive relationship between theory and practice, description and prescription. But these categories are failing us on all levels. Time to re-view both the concrete lives of everyday communities (as Howie Becker’s work constantly reminds us) and the theoretical frameworks we have used to make sense of them.

The new creativity should not be about collaboration as opposed to solitude or individual brilliance. It should not be about anemic collaboration or hyper-egoic genius. I prefer to see it as an invitation to dive into the entire phenomenon more deeply. It invites us to become aware of actual practices as well as alternatives perspectives and the practices they in turn involve, to challenge limited and limiting viewpoints and develop new ways of thinking, new ways of relating, and new ways of being. It is also an invitation to reflect more deeply about who we are and how we have defined ourselves, how we think, the categories we create, and how they can trap us as well as liberate us…


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Cain, S. (2012, January 13). The rise of the new groupthink. The New York Times.

Eisler, R. (1987). The chalice and the blade. San Francisco: Harper Collins.

Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of personality and social psychology, 96(5), 1029-1046.

Haidt, J. (2013). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Random House.

John-Steiner, V. (2006). Creative collaboration. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Kushner, T. (1997). Is it a fiction that playwrights create alone? In F. Barron, A. Montuori & A. Barron (Eds.), Creators on creating. (pp. 145-149). New York: Tarcher.

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Shenk, J. W. (2014). Powers of two: Finding the essence of innovation in creative pairs. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Spretnak, C. (2011). Relational reality: New discoveries that are transforming the modern world. Topsham, ME: Green Horizon Books.

Thompson, W. I. (2013). Beyond religion. Aurora, CO: Lindisfarne Press.

 About the Author

Alfonso Montuori, PhD, is Professor at California Institute of Integral Studies, where he designed and teaches in the Transformative Leadership M.A. and the Transformative Studies Ph.D. He was Distinguished Professor in the School of Fine Arts at Miami University, in Oxford Ohio and in 1985-1986 he taught at the Central South University in Hunan, China. An active musician and producer, in a former life Alfonso worked in London England as a professional musician. He is the author of several books and numerous articles on creativity and innovation, the future, complexity theory, and leadership. Alfonso is also a consultant in the areas of creativity, innovation and leadership development whose clients have included NetApp, Training Vision (Singapore), Omintel-Olivetti (Italy) and Procter and Gamble.

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