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Creative Abrasion vs. Creative Collaboration

October 2nd, 2009

Much has been written about collaborate teams within organizations to encourage creativity and much has been written about “Creative Abrasion” – creating a culture where ideas are challenged and new “intersections” are constantly made.   The two ideas are not mutually exclusive; they can co-exist within one organization, even though they may seem to be Opposites.   In fact, companies that are able to encourage both behaviors seem to be benefiting in the present economic environment.

Can a company culture support both?

Creative Friction

What do we mean by Creative Abrasion and what  causes this sort of friction within companies?

The terms was apparently created by Jerry Hirshberg, founder and president of Nissan Design International (NDI).  Xerox Parc leader John Seeley Brown refers to “creative abrasion” as: ideas that really rub against each other productively as opposed to destructively.”

A good example of creative abrasion was the birth of the Apple Macintosh computer.  It’s a well-known fact that Jobs took the original team out of the mainstream organization, created a sort of “skunk-works” within Apple, to complete the entire product (hardware, software) without having to deal with the hierarchy or politics of Apple corporate.  What is less often discussed is WHY this particular team was so successful.  Jobs – a stickler for detail – who often became involved in the smallest of details, created an environment of creative abrasion among team members.    The heart of creative abrasion was DIVERSITY, although it might not have seemed this way from afar.  The team members themselves, where hand-chosen by Jobs – and included a very wide array of artists, musicians and deep thinkers – even though you could label them all “software programmers”.

Diversity of talents, viewpoints, cultural differences, etc – this is what enables abrasive behavior, because the team with diversity will challenge itself.  Here is what Jobs himself had to say about this:

Creative Collaboration, too

At the same time, many  companies deep in creative culture stress the importance of collaboration among employees, across departments and even with customers.  Ed Catamult, CEO of Pixar, writes about the “peer driven” collaborative process for problem solving and creating movies: “Everyone is fully invested in helping everyone else turn out the best work…it’s all for one and one for all.”    Collaboration, on the surface, seems to make sense.  If the technology group at Pixar, can work well with the Production and the production team can work with the story-writers, and they all can work with the technologists to create incredible graphics, then it would seem collaboration is key to success.

Some good definitions and thoughts on forms of collaboration were discussed recently by Hagel, Seeley Brown and Davison on the Harvard Business School Publishing blog.

Collaboration seems to be the opposite of Abrasion – or is it?

Creative abrasion and collaboration can co-exist

The way these both can co-exist if leaders determine the best spot in the problem-solving or ideation process for each of them.  For example, the typical problem solving process goes like this:  choose/identify specific problem à generate (ideate) possible  solutions to the problem à choose from among best solutions à test out possible approaches, refine à choose best solution and create action plan for it.

When  creative abrasion occurs in the identification of problem, or identification of best solution, then politics, opinions and different ways of looking at the world may get in the way of making decisions.  If abrasion  occurs, however,  in the Ideation step, however, it allows for a confluence of opinions, options and ideas to emerge.  Creative abrasion can be very helpful because it unleashes the Power of Diversity.

When collaboration occurs during Problem Definition and refinement, and in Solution-gathering , the organization benefits – the company components are all working together in setting up for success.  But like-minded thinking and collaboration in the Ideation or brainstorming phases of a project may lead to “ho-hum thinking and lack of new ideas.  Pixar describes it like this – during meetings peers work together, but once the process of ideation is over, the ultimate decision as to which ideas to implement falls to the movie’s directors.

Ultimately a skilled creative leader is able to recognize the needs for both collaboration and  and organize the process, participants and stages of development in such as way as to benefit from both “Creative Abrasion” as well as “Peer Collaboration”.