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The Though Kitchen - Dedicated to Stirring the Pot

We Think

Posted by Pierce | April 24th, 2007 | Filed under Personal Reflection, Positive Change

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“Fireside chats with Charlie” is what we called our Friday afternoon Social Entrepreneurship lectures with Charles Leadbeater. I was unaware at the time that Charlie was council to Tony Blair, a writer for the Financial Times, and ranked by Accenture, a management consultancy, as one of the top management thinkers in the world. What struck me about this utterly understated man was that, unlike most other lecturers, he spent the entire 3.5 hour lecture periods asking questions. While he was “leading” the class, he barely spoke.

It came as no surprise that before printing his newest book, “We Think,” Charlie posted it online in a Wiki format for everyone to view, edit, and correct. In the four months the book has been online, the eleven draft chapters were downloaded, on average, 35 times a day. He received 91 emails from people with detailed comments and suggestions and about 150 comments were posted on the site. As a rough estimate, by the time the book is formally published in the summer of 2007 the rough draft will have been downloaded about 12,000 times.

In a profession where individual creativity and ownership have dominated for centuries, it is incredible to see an entirely collaborative writing process. As a close friend of Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, Charlie has been a leader in pushing collaborative creation and “user-led design.” “We Think,” the book, has turned traditional writing on its head and further affirmed TIME magazine’s “Person of the Year” selection as “YOU.” In his reflection on his publishing “experiment” and the feedback he’s received Charlie states, “It is a much better book as a result of this process and I now cannot imagine writing a book in another way.”

While sitting through my final lectures of the week, I hardly realized that we were another part of Charile’s collaboration experiment. We found it interesting that our lecturer spoke less than any individual in the class, but I now understand that his aim was for the content to come from within the class, not from the front of it.

You can find out more about “We Think” and post your own comments here.

3 Responses to “We Think”

  • May 10, 2007 at 2:50 pm | Dean says

    I’m sure the argument has been made thousands of times over, but isn’t it damaging to create an open source piece of literature and expect it to have the intangible “soul” that nearly all great literary works have? Isn’t innovation and exploration supposed to be lonely and terrifying – left up to those with the moxie to take on the challenge with or without the input of 12,000 individual downloads? I don’t doubt those offering critique are intelligent and informed, but I see the potential danger of this sort of collaborative writing process devolving into something akin to literary demagoguery. What do you think?

  • May 13, 2007 at 5:09 pm | Pierce says

    Hi Dean,

    Thank you for your comment. You’ve raised some interesting points.

    To the first point regarding the ability for the book to have soul I would answer with a few more questions: “does a great literary work need to have a soul?” and “could it then not also have numerous souls as a result of the collaborative writing process?”

    To your second point regarding collaboration and innovation I would argue along the lines of the academic thinkers Hargadon and Sutton in their article “building an innovation factory” that many great innovations happen only because of the collaborative process. For example, innovation consultancies such as IDEO rely heavily on collaborative creation processes to generate solutions to needs in medicine, seating, shopping and so on.

    As I interpret it, Charlie has opened himself up to the best minds on the internet and allowed his work to grow and develop in ways that were previously impossible. In a way he has created a literary Kiva, where people with assets (capital, ideas, etc…) can positively contribute to those who could benefit from those assets, but cannot otherwise attain them. I don’t see it as watering down and literary demagoguery but as enhancing a work using networked minds.

    What are your thoughts?

  • November 17, 2007 at 9:45 pm | Dean says

    Pierce,

    Sorry for the delay of the response, not sure if it’s even relevant to you now given the time lapse. But, might as well answer this straightforward.

    In the case of literature, I would say it is definitely necessary for a “great” literary piece to have a soul. And when I refer to literature I’m of course alluding to writings with artistic or subjective merit – objective texts on hard sciences, etc. could benefit from a collective approach, I’m sure.

    Yet the use of examples from medicine, seating layout (I assume this is what you mean), etc. are apples to oranges. As mentioned above, this is a difference between objective solutions (I love what Jimmy Wales is doing with Wikipedia ) and subjective breakthroughs that spur artistic innovation (which is not exclusive of the objective domain, either).

    —-

    And I also believe collaborative solutions have their limit as far as size is concerned. Sure, a room of driven, focused minds are beneficial in some ways, as is the relationship between a writer and an editor. But any veteran of a corporate atmosphere will tell you good ideas quickly get lost in the haze and politics of large groups of people. It’s a natural and unavoidable tendency for large groups to advance towards a mean – which is often the antithesis of innovation. “Hey Picaso, the eyes look a bit askew.” Seems like collectivism (or creative collaboration as you call it) while beneficial for ensuring the security of the whole, is fundamentally the enemy of true originality in subjective or artistic matters.

    “We think” seems to border precariously near “Group think”.

    Hope you get a chance to read this. Feel free to email me directly if you do. Otherwise, thank you for your thoughts.

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