Awakening Our Collaborative Spirit
Syndicated from, Jul 17, 2012

10 minute read


The physicist, David Bohm, while researching the lives of Einstein, Heisenberg, Pauli and Bohr, made a remarkable observation. Bohm noticed that their incredible breakthroughs took place through simple, open and honest conversation. He observed, for instance, that Einstein and his colleagues spent years freely meeting and conversing with each other. During these interactions, they exchanged and dialogued about ideas which later became the foundations of modern physics. They exchanged ideas without trying to change the other's mind and without bitter argument. They felt free to propose whatever was on their mind. They always paid attention to each other's views and established an extraordinary professional fellowship. This freedom to discuss without risk led to the breakthroughs that physicists today take for granted.

Other scientists of the time, in contrast, wasted their careers bickering over petty nuances of opinion and promoting their own ideas at the expense of others. They mistrusted their colleagues, covered up weaknesses and were reluctant to openly share their work. Many refused to discuss their honest thoughts about physics because of the fear of being labeled controversial by their colleagues. Others were afraid of being called ignorant. The majority of scientists of the time lived in an atmosphere of fear and politics. They produced nothing of significance.


THE SPIRIT OF KOINONIA.  Einstein and his friends illustrate the staggering potential of collaborative thinking. The notion that open and honest collaboration allows thinking to grow as a collective phenomenon can be traced back to Socrates and other thinkers in ancient Greece. Socrates and his friends so revered the concept of group dialogue that they bound themselves by principles of discussion that they established to maintain a sense of collegiality. These principles were known as "Koinonia" which means spirit of fellowship.The principles they established were:

ESTABLISH DIALOGUE. In Greek, the word dialogue means a "talking through." The Greeks believed that the key to establishing dialogue is to exchange ideas without trying to change the other person's mind. This is not the same as discussion, which from its Latin root means to "dash to pieces." The basic rules of dialogue for the Greeks were: "Don't argue," "Don't interrupt," and "Listen carefully."

CLARIFY YOUR THINKING. To clarify your thinking, you must suspend all untested assumptions. Being aware of your assumptions and suspending them allows thought to flow freely. Free thought is blocked if we are unaware of our assumptions, or unaware that our thoughts and opinions are based on assumptions. For instance, if you believe that certain people are not creative, you=re not likely to give their ideas fair consideration. Check your assumptions about everything and try to maintain an unbiased view.

BE HONEST. Say what you think, even if your thoughts are controversial.

The ancient Greeks believed these principles allowed thinking to grow as a collective phenomenon. Koinonia allowed a group to access a larger pool of common thoughts which cannot be accessed individually. A new kind of mind begins to come into being which is based on the development of common thoughts. People are no longer in opposition. They become participants in a pool of common ideas, which are capable of constant development and change.

The notion that the collective intelligence of a group is larger than the intelligence of an individual can be traced back to primitive times when hunter-gather bands would meet to discuss and solve common problems. It is commonly understood and accepted practice. What's difficult is the willingness of a group to discipline itself to brainstorm for ideas openly and productively. Alex Osborne, anadvertising executive in Buffalo, New York, recognized this and formalized brainstorming in 1941 as a systematic effort and disciplined practice to produce ideas in a group.

Osborne's idea was to create an un-inhibiting environment that would encourage imaginative ideas and thoughts. The usual method is to have a small group discuss a problem. Ideas are offered by participants one at a time. One member records ideas and suggestions on a flip chart or chalk board. All withhold judgment. After the brainstorming session, the various ideas and suggestions are reviewed and evaluated and the group agrees on a final resolution.

There are many problems with traditional brainstorming. Sessions can be undercut by group uniformity pressures and perceived threats from managers and bosses. Other sessions fail because people find it difficult to avoid judging and evaluating ideas as they are offered. Personality differences also come into play: some people are naturally willing to talk, while others tend to be silent.

All of us had a taste of good group brainstorming sessions at some time in our lives that provided ideas and thoughts we could never have imagined in advance. But these experiences come rarely and are usually the product of certain conditions. Following are suggested conditions that help overcome these attitudes by enhancing "Koinonia" in your brainstorming sessions:

PARTICIPANTS.  Jonas Salk, developer of the vaccine that eradicated polio, made it a standard practice to assemble men and women from very different domains to interact during his group sessions. He felt this practice helped him bring out new ideas that could not arise in the minds of individuals who were from the same domain.

Consider the weaving together of multiple people from different disciplines that led to the discovery of DNA's structure. The successful collaboration included James Watson (microbiologist), Maurice Wilkins (X-ray crystallographer), Francis Crick (physicist), and Linus Pauling (chemist). Their different styles of work and approaches were a key aspect to the discovery.

The ideal brainstorming group should be diverse, including experts, non-experts, as well as people from different domains within the organization. For example, a marketing group brainstorming for new marketing ideas could invite a customer, someone from manufacturing, an engineer and a receptionist to the meeting.

COLLEGIAL.  All participants must regard one another as equal colleagues, even if you have nothing in common. Thinking of each other as colleagues is important because thought is participative. Just the willingness to consciously think of each other as colleagues contributes toward interacting as colleagues. We talk differently and more honestly with friends than we do with people who are not friends. Any controlling authority, no matter how carefully presented, will tend to inhibit the free play of thought. If one person is used to having his view prevail because he is the most senior person present, than that privilege must be surrendered in advance. If one person is used to withholding ideas because he or she is more junior, than the security of "keeping quiet" must also be surrendered.

SUSPEND ALL ASSUMPTIONS.  Collegial collaboration is a process we must come to understand and work hard toward. The difficulty of effective collaboration has been demonstrated by several experiments conducted by Howard Gruber and his associates at the University of Geneva. In one experiment, he demonstrates a box which allows two people to peer into it and see the shadow cast by what is to them an unknown object. Because of the angle, each viewer sees a different shape to the shadow. Their task is to share the information about what they see in order to identify the object casting the shadow. For instance, if a cone is placed in the box, one viewer sees a circle, the other a triangle.

The idea was to encourage the viewers to collaborate like two astronomers taking a fix on the heavens from different positions, and they see the world in slightly different ways. They take respectful advantage of the fact that one sees it from here and the other from there, and they put together a richer, more soundly based idea of what is really out there than either one could reach alone.

But the opposite happened. Each viewer assumed their view was the correct one and that the other person was apparently confused, blind or crazy. "How can you see a triangle? I see a circle." This was true of highly intelligent, educated adults. The assumptions made by the viewers made it difficult to collaborate about even a simple object, like a cone. 

In order to give fair value to ideas, the group collectively must free themselves of all preconceptions and suspend all assumptions. Suspending assumptions allows you to look at new ideas in an unbiased way. It is undeniable that by the sheer power of his imagination, Einstein suspended all assumptions that other physicists made about the world and completely reoriented reality. Once one makes assumptions that this is the way it is, all creative thought stops. The group's agreement and discipline of suspending assumptions is key to unblocking the collective imagination.

SUSPEND JUDGEMENT.  In an atomic pile, an explosion is prevented by inserting rods of cadmium which mop up the particles that are shooting around. In this way the energy in the pile is controlled. If there are too many rods, the chain reaction stops and the pile can no longer produce any energy. People who are unable to appreciate new ideas are like the rods and when you get too many of them, it becomes impossible for a group to generate creative energy and the group will shut down. Require everyone to suspend all criticism and judgement until after the idea generation stage. Whenever someone says "Yes, but..." require the participant to change "Yes, but..." to "Yes, and..." and continue where the last person left off. This simple change from the negative to the positive will help change the psychology of the group.

ENVIRONMENT. Hold your meetings in a risk-free zone where people can speak their minds without fear of criticism or ridicule. Encourage people to say what they are thinking, even if their thoughts are radical or controversial. Once people realize they can speak freely without being judged or ridiculed, they become comfortable and open. As soon as participants become concerned with "who said what," or "not saying something stupid," creativity is retarded.

Play classical music when people are thinking. Music can be a powerful catalyst in the creative process. It puts participants into a peaceful state of mind, which facilitates reflection. Einstein=s son once reflected that whenever Einstein came to a difficult situation in his work, he would take refuge in the music of Beethoven and Mozart, and that the music would exhilarate him and help him resolve his difficulties.

Make the environment visually stimulating by posting pictures and diagrams that are relevant to the subject around the room. For example, suppose you wanted to design a car for upwardly mobile families. You might start by putting together a wall-sized board of photographs and drawings. Use pictures to answer some questions such as: What kinds of houses do these car buyers live in? What kind of watches do they buy? Where do they go on vacation? What kind of art do they hang on their walls? Mix your own idea sketches in among them. As the swarm of pictures grows, anunderstanding of who is going to buy this car and what might appeal to them begins to emerge.

PLAYFULNESS. One of Walt Disney's greatest secrets was his ability to draw out the inner child in his business associates and combine it with their business acumen. Because he made the work playlike, his associates worked and played together with a missionary zeal. Disney was a true genius who needed to collaborate with other people to express his concepts. Disney got the creative collaboration he needed by consciously creating a humorous and playful environment.

An environment of playfulness and humor is highly conducive to creativity. Playfulness relaxes the tension in a group. In a state of relaxation, individuals show less fixation and rigidity in their thinking. Consequently, a playful group will lose its inhibitions about combining dissimilar concepts and ideas and looking for hidden similarities. These actions are highly conducive to creative thinking and, consequently, a group will generate a much wider range of options than would otherwise be considered.

When we play, we become childlike and begin to behave in spontaneous creative ways. Play and creativity have much in common. In particular, play often involves using objects and actions in new or unusual ways, similar to the imaginative combinations of ideas involved in creative thinking. Picasso once remarked that he became a true artist when he learned how to paint like a child. Einstein has been described as the perennial child and was very much aware of the parallels between creative-thinking thought patterns and those of playful children. It was Einstein who suggested to Piaget that he investigate the way children think of speed and time, thereby inspiring one of the psychologist's most illuminating lines of research.

FACILITATOR. A skilled facilitator is essential to the process of brainstorming. In the absence of a skilled facilitator, habits of thought will pull the group toward critical, judgmental thinking and away from productive, creative thinking. The skilled facilitator should have strong interpersonal skills, understand the principles of fluent and flexible thinking and be able to paraphrase and find analogies for suggestions. The facilitator is often a good curator, keeping the group focused, eliminating distractions, and keeping creative thinking alive by liberating the group from trivial and bureaucratic thinking.


This article is reprinted here with permission. Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques. His newest book Creative Thinkering: Putting your Imagination to Work has just been released and is now available at most major bookstores and on his site,  

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