Is the collective the new genius?

In times of turmoil it’s tempting – some might say necessary – to look to the past, to ask how our forebears might have answered the challenges of today.

While “What would Steve Jobs do? What would Thomas Edison do?” seem likely to provide innovative solutions to complex problems, imaginative questions aren’t a guarantee of effective answers. In times past, creativity research focused on revealing creative genius, reinforcing the myth of the enviably over-gifted scientist, artist or businessperson. But though the stereotype of the lone, maverick innovator makes for entertaining movie plots, we now ask ourselves: is the creative collective the new genius?



In his biography, Steve Wozniak, of Apple Inc. fame, advocates the necessity of working alone as a means of facilitating learning and creativity. But if concentration and individual focus are recognized as key elements in creative processes, they still need to be balanced by steady productive output and openness to expert criticism, not to mention input from potential users and supporters alike.

As we all know, the history of Apple would have been radically different without the creative pairing of the soft-spoken computer virtuoso Wozniak with the hot-tempered visionary and entrepreneur Steve Jobs. That said, let it not be forgotten that the Apple story has its origins in the inspired thinking of a whole community of computer hobbyists and activists – playing with the idea of accessible and user-friendly technology for all – called the Homebrew Computer Club.

From Hewlett-Packard to Google, two-headed leadership is not uncommon in successful creative organizations – it creates a healthy tension of ideas. But this tension can’t be immune to wider societal thinking and commercial necessities, and must be put to the test of ever-broader audiences: first the peer experts; second the critics; third the common users, and finally the various stakeholders and supporters. Harnessing this greater creative contribution, building a wealth of expertise around one vision, is key to achieving breakthrough innovation.



Inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Edison – who has more than a thousand patents to his name – was one of the leading innovators of his day, and his credits include the phonograph, the microphone and the light bulb. The true genius of Edison was in his ability to identify a specific unfulfilled need in a specific market, and then think in terms of business models. He would then invest heavily in research, analyzing patents and overseeing scientific development with his team, pushing product experimentation in what was, for all intents and purposes, the first industrial R&D laboratories in history.

Edison’s teams were the result of clever casting, mixing mathematicians with engineers, eager salesmen with talented tinkerers – passionate people all. When confronted with competition, Edison would even organize intensive 3-to-5 day creative boot camps at which his team would work day and night, toying with nascent technologies, until they ultimately arrived at a new concept or product. In so doing, Edison intuitively designed a critical managerial device: the creative collective.



In the present day, creative collectives are an integral, thriving and growing component of design, software creation, architecture, theatre, video-gaming, urban arts, social media and, especially, business. The underground is a boiling source of innovation, and collectives appear when a bunch of passionate compadres decide to have a peek aboveground, gather around a project, and share it with the rest of the world.

Members of the collective provide the propulsive, creative impetus that supports the project as they dream it and build it into existence. They capitalize on each other’s expertise, on shared ideas and talent while connecting to wider networks of similarly passionate peers, as well as potential users and consumers.

Creative collectives are the active cells of bottomwww.c2montreal.comp, global, truly open innovation. From an organizational point of view, the real challenge for managers is to rebuild their organizations as communities of creative collectives. There are lessons to be learned from the not-so-lone geniuses of our contemporary creative folklore: Dream big, be visionary, gather a team of diverse, passionate and creatively-inclined people, and let them play with your dream until they break it. Then let them own it and rebuild it in the most unexpectedly innovative ways.


Post by Laurent Simon, Associate Professor of Management, HEC Montreal MosaiC.


If you agree that the collective is the new genius – as a complimentary introspection – we challenge you to reflect on question #2 from “The Guide for Inquiring Minds”.   Tweet us your comments to @C2MTL.

Do I talk to people or with people?

Q2_Guide_700 C2MTL


Afin de respecter la vision des auteurs, les textes de ce blogue sont publiés dans leur langue d’origine. So as to remain true to the author’s intent, the articles featured on this blog are published in the language in which they were originally written.

Photo / Illustration  © C2MTL 2014