Keith Sawyer: An interview by Bob Morris

Sawyer, KeithKeith Sawyer is one of the world’s leading scientific experts on creativity and innovation. In his first job after graduating from MIT, he designed videogames for Atari. He then worked for six years as a management consultant in Boston and New York, advising large corporations on the strategic use of information technology. He’s been a jazz pianist for over 30 years, and performed with several improv theater groups in Chicago, as part of his research into jazz and improvisational theater.

Previous to Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, his books include Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration and Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, and he has published over 80 scientific articles. Sawyer is a professor of education, psychology, and business at Washington University in St. Louis.

* * *

Morris: Who has had the greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Sawyer: I had so many wonderful mentors and advisors that introduced me to creativity research. When I arrived at the University of Chicago as a doctoral student, I had long been interested in musical and artistic creativity, but I had no idea this was a field of scientific research. When I applied to grad school, I wanted to study conversational dynamics, and I went to University of Chicago to work with the famous linguistic anthropologist, Michael Silverstein. Just by coincidence, my first Fall term on campus, Mike Csikszentmihalyi was teaching a class called “Psychology of Creativity,” and I signed up for it, basically as an elective.

Mike was the one who introduced me to the field and showed me that it was possible to do rigorous empirical study of the creative process. His own dissertation, also at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s, was a study of the creative process of MFA students at the Art Institute of Chicago. For the term project in his class, I interviewed several jazz musicians about their own creative process. Mike liked the paper, and suggested that I revise it and submit it to the Creativity Research Journal. After revision it was accepted, and became my first published journal article, in 1992.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Sawyer: I didn’t start graduate school until I was 30. My undergrad degree was in computer science at MIT, and I worked eight years after college in information technology and software development. My first job, I designed videogames for a small company in Cambridge, MA, that did many of Atari’s hit videogames, under contract. Then, I worked six years doing management consulting for big money-center banks. At the age of 29, I was really ready for a change; I had always wanted to return to grad school and become a professor, and the time was right. But I didn’t know what I wanted to study or even what departments to apply to. I knew I wanted to study how people communicate through language; I discovered that scholars study this in linguistics, anthropology, sociology, and psychology.

And as a matter of fact, throughout my career since then, I’ve continued to be very interdisciplinary and this is my own approach to creativity research.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Sawyer: I am not one of those people who thinks that schools kill creativity. Teachers and schools taught me so much that I needed to know to do the work I’ve done. My two degrees are from two extremely rigorous environments, MIT and the University of Chicago. What both of these places share is a deep commitment to ideas and inquiry. People really care about getting it right, about what is the truth about a phenomenon. Sometimes people argue, and I mean shouting…just because they really really care about ideas.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Sawyer: I knew nothing! I was just a nerdy computer science graduate. And the videogame design company was not corporate at all; it was a small startup company that had all of the features we now associate with Internet startups. In 1982, we had a gourmet chef, we had company-paid vacations to Disneyworld…I got my real education about the business world when I started consulting for big companies like Citicorp and AT&T and US West. My mentor was the company founder, Kenan Sahin, who had been a professor in business at MIT. Thanks to him, I essentially received an MBA education on the job.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Sawyer: When I was in college, I went through a period of fascination with eastern philosophies, and I know this book well. Yes, I agree this is true leadership.

Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Sawyer: I would respond with another quotation, from George Burns: “The most important thing for an actor is sincerity. If he can fake that, he’s got it made.”

Morris: From Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Sawyer: Absolutely! This is why I called my book Zig Zag: because the creative process is unpredictable and non-linear.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Sawyer: In creativity research, we talk about the importance of asking the right question. Sometimes we call it “problem finding”. In my book’s 8-stage model, this is the first step.

Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: [begin italics] organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Sawyer: Absolutely! It is emergent, distributed, bottom-up leadership.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Sawyer: In my book Group Genius, I advocate failing early, often, and gloriously.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Sawyer: Is that really true? In my experience, people don’t make it to the C-suite unless they know how to identify and hire good people, and let them do the job.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Sawyer: Business schools are doing a pretty good job, in my view. The customers keep coming, after all. One change I would advocate is to place less emphasis on lecture/technical type classes (e.g. finance, supply chain management) and more emphasis on soft skills—leadership, teamwork, creativity. I also think b schools need to introduce more entrepreneurship in their MBA curricula. (Many are doing this already)

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Zig Zag. When and why did you decide to write it?

Sawyer: There are so many creativity advice books out there, but none of them has been written by a creativity researcher. I wanted to write a book of advice, exercises and techniques that was inspired by the best research.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Sawyer: I discovered so many great links between creativity research and other areas of psychological research. One great example is the research on “mindfulness”. It turns out that mindfulness is highly related to creativity—this turned out to be a major theme of my third step, LOOK—be aware of the world around you.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Sawyer: It is COMPLETELY different. The book itself went through a zigzag path. I started on it back in 2007-2008. The original title was The Compass.

* * *

Keith cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His home page

His blog

His Amazon page

The Zig Zag page

Huffington Post link

Posted in

Leave a Comment