Who came up with the theory of evolution? It's not a hard question. Almost everyone would immediately answer, Charles Darwin.
But a new study out of the London School of Economics and Harvard calls that answer into question -- or at least complicates it. Darwin wasn't the sole author of the ground-breaking theory, this research contends, instead his breakthrough was actually the product of ideas percolating through a whole host of different minds.
"New ideas and technologies are not the product of a few far-sighted geniuses but arise through societies and social networks acting as 'collective brains,'" says the LSE release explaining this new model of how innovation works.
"We can see this process at work when two people have the same apparently innovative idea at the same time--such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace with the theory of natural selection. Rather than being heroic geniuses, Darwin and Wallace were in the same 'cultural milieu', both reading the same books and both traveling to biologically diverse island environments," explains the LSE's Michael Muthukrishna, who led the research.
Practical advice for would-be innovators
It's a fascinating, alternate take on how great ideas are born. But according to the study's authors, the findings also provide practical suggestions for folks looking to boost their own creativity. If truly innovative ideas are formed collectively, then the most important factor for generating more of them isn't smarter individual contributors, it's more opportunity for interaction and discussion among diverse people.
"To be an innovator, it's better to be social rather than smart," declares Muthukrishna. "There's no doubt that there are variations in people's raw skills, but what predicts the difference between a Steve Jobs and a Joe Bloggs is actually their exposure to new ideas that are wonderful and different."
"If you want to be more creative the best thing you can do is to talk to people who disagree with you," he concludes.
A smarter collective brain
The paper also highlights three factors that make groups of humans more creative as a whole. The first is sociability or having many connections between lots of diverse people. The second is "transmission fidelity," or the ability to remember and convey ideas accurately. Finally, a greater support for experimentation increases the chance of the collective brain hitting on a new, brilliant idea.
While Muthukrishna and his co-author discuss how these factors play out on a society-wide level (good bankruptcy laws encourage creative experimentation by making failure tolerable, for instance), you could also apply them to an individual creative team. If you want a more innovative group, try ensuring the team is diverse and that there are adequate procedures in place to capture and share good ideas, as well as encouraging experimentation and the frequent failures that inevitably come with it.