5 Steps: Tear down those cubicle walls and unleash the genius within!


We all have our rituals. On Sunday, mine is putting laundry in the washer, getting something hot or cold to drink (weather and season dependent), and then reading the New York Times online. I may have moved to Maine almost 30 years ago, but I am still a New York girl at heart!

As I was performing this ritual last week, an article jumped out at me as certainly germane to the Women’s Learning Studio blog posts for the last several weeks on learning with others online.

It caught my attention just because of the title: The End of Genius, an opinion piece by Joshua Wolf Shenk. He begins the piece with: “…the lone genius is a myth that has outlived its usefulness. Fortunately, a more truthful model is emerging: the creative network, as with the crowd-sourced Wikipedia or the writer’s room at “The Daily Show” or — the real heart of creativity — the intimate exchange of the creative pair, such as John Lennon and Paul McCartney and myriad other examples with which we’ve yet to fully reckon.” He gives examples of how genius morphed from everyone having genius within (pre 16th century) to solo creator after the Renaissance.

Even Shakespeare was a collaborative writer, it turns out. Shenk says: “Of course, theater is inherently collaborative. But the Elizabethan stage was more like the modern film industry, where the writer is generally less an auteur than a piece of a machine. Surviving records show three or four or even five playwrights receiving pay for a single production, according to the Columbia professor James Shapiro. The irony is that Shakespeare, whose world serves so well to illustrate a collaborative (or networked) idea about how good work is made, would become the icon of the solo creator.”

How do we return to the collaborative, or networked, way of creativity to create communal genius, after centuries of the lone genius model both in our society and work environments? How do we capitalize on the inherent rivalries that are collaborations of exploring differing views, opinions, and thoughts (Shenk mentions Picasso and Matisse as an example of a rivalry that influenced each artist so deeply that it became a collaboration to the benefit of us all)?Matisse:Picasso

In addition to providing online spaces to work out loud (see my previous blog on that), innovative companies and organizations are embracing physical spaces that boost creativity and collaboration and provide both reflective, solitary spaces and collaborative, open spaces. The CNN 10: Better by Design on CNN.com showcased how companies are tearing down the walls of cubicles to encourage group work, discussion, and yes, disagreement, that lead to innovation and better ideas. As Emanuella Grinberg reports, these organizations are: “creating offices that bring employees together in colorful communal workstations and collaboration areas, making “The Office” look like a monochrome vestige of a bygone era. And, designers are working with companies to maintain private spaces within open offices where employees can drill down on a report or take an important phone call beyond earshot of colleagues.
It’s part of the “alone but together” philosophy taking hold in office design, which attempts to balance employee collaboration with privacy in an era when personal space is shrinking

The internet has created a mechanism for networking outside of organizational walls, no matter what they look like. I am on several professional LinkedIn groups and learn from and join the discussions that are ongoing and thoughtful, for example. So you don’t have to tear out the walls of your office to create a more open, networked learning and thinking environment as long as there is open online space instead.

Shenk points out “Even Einstein, for all his solitude, worked out the theory of relativity in conversation with the engineer Michele Besso, whom he praised as “the best sounding board in Europe.” In other words, having collaborative learning partners and groups, or learning bubbles as Doris and I and our friend and colleague Brenda call them, is essential for allowing the genius from within to burst forth.

No one expects organizations to do a complete office make over to ensure collaborative, networked learning is supported. Here are 5 things you can do without calling in the construction crew:

  1. Hold regular times for face-to-face or online meetings to discuss challenges, barriers, where people are stuck on projects, cases, program implementation. Sometimes ideas from those removed from the issue, product or process can see more clearly and offer solid ways for improvement.
  2. Create an intra-office online space to post questions and ask for help, share learning. Breaking down silos of work will not only widen the circle of support for staff, but will keep everyone informed of organizational mission, goals, and progress toward milestones.
  3. Engage everyone in organizational thinking to encourage innovation and change. Create an open atmosphere where communal problem-solving, open learning, and sharing learning becomes a cultural norm.
  4. Invite others outside of the organization in. Utilize the power of the internet to create new networks with experts and thinkers in your field. Learn with them!
  5. Break down those cubicles (physical or proverbial) and unleash the genius within your organization. Encourage healthy dialogue, including constructive disagreements, to push learning as far as it can go.

How do you support unleashing the genius within your organization? What collaborative strategies and mechanisms do you employ? What suggestions do you have to add to this list?

Featured image courtesy of: http://bestoflegends.org/shakespeare/

Matisse/Picasso image courtesy of: http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/the_browser/1999/02/matisse_vs_picasso.html

2 replies
  1. Lisa Levinson
    Lisa Levinson says:

    Thanks for your comments, Lyn! I too am reminded of my most enjoyable, and successful, times in my career when open, collaborative, and deep thinking, learning, and problem-solving created innovation and change. We learned so much from each other, and delivered better services, as a result.

    You are so right when you say our culture shouts out to the individual. I wonder what other cultures and countries can teach us about collaborative genius. I am reminded that Deming had to go to Japan to institute his ideas of continuous improvement, which included management leaving decisions to workers because they knew the processes best, and cross functional teams to build stronger products.

  2. Lyn Boyer
    Lyn Boyer says:

    Lisa, I enjoyed reading your thoughts very much. They remind me of the most enjoyable times in my career. Those were most often when I was engaged with a small number of people considering different ideas to solve problems. Not only were the discussions fun but they usually ended in much better solutions than when I considered my own alternatives, sometimes for much longer periods of time.
    I particularly like your mention of solitary geniuses. Like so much in our culture that shouts out to the individual, much more is in fact communal.

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