Beautiful Miami, and the social requirements for innovation

by Rob Tiller

My room at the W in South Beach

My little burgundy Briggs & Riley roll aboard has been getting a work out these last few weeks. It was barely aired out from our trip to B’s memorial in New York before it got repacked and reloaded on American flight 1541 for Miami, where Red Hat hosted a management summit.

We stayed at the W, where I had a room with a balcony overlooking the beach. I never actually made it onto the beach (too busy), but I got a few deep breaths of ocean air and on the way to lunch by the pool glimpsed some pretty girls in bikinis. The room was hyper modern, black and off white, with mirrors, reflective metal, white granite, black wood, and many different textures. The shower was bounded with clear glass on one side and translucent glass on the other, with water jets arranged at the normal head level, along with chest level and thigh level. When I finally figured out that the hot and cold indicators were reversed, I had a great shower.

We had sessions with leading economists, business analysts, management experts and others about technology trends and best practices. We were also urged during breaks and meals to mingle and network. As a moderate introvert by nature, where the assigned mission is to make contacts in large groups of strangers and then having interesting conversations, I always feel a certain dread, which can verge on panic. What if can think of nothing to say? Or the new acquaintance has nothing to say?

Over the years, I’ve gotten more adept at handling or avoiding such social emergencies, and usually end up, despite the initial dread, talking with nice people and having a good time. And so it was in South Beach, where I met a lot of interesting and friendly Red Hatters, including some who shared some of my personal enthusiasms (such as sports cars, skiing, and music) or had surprising enthusiasms of their own (such as sailing, flying, and triathlon). Of course, everyone was very bright. I felt privileged to be associated with all those gifted people and with the mission of Red Hat.

Speaking of useful interactions, on the plane ride back, I read an interesting piece in the current New Yorker by Johah Lehrer called Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth. (The link has only a blurb; payment is required for the entire article.) Lehrer recognizes that today creativity and innovation are generally the products of group collaboration. He notes that important scientific or technical problems are incredibly hard, and researchers are specialized, “because there’s only so much information one mind can handle.” As one scholar put it, “A hundred years ago, the Wright brothers could build an airplane all by themselves. . . . Now Boeing needs hundreds of engineers just to design and produce engines.” Because of complexity, “people must either work together or fail alone.”

Lehrer goes on to discuss the classic strategy for coming up with new ideas — brainstorming, or having groups quickly generate ideas while prohibiting all criticism. He provides scholarship showing that, despite being widely practiced, brainstorming isn’t very effective. More effective than simply encouraging ideas is allowing room for conflict and dissent. He also explores the optimum degree of social intimacy for producing a Broadway hit (moderate) and the kind of physical space that produces groundbreaking science (Building 20 at MIT). It’s worth reading.