April 2021
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TD Magazine

The Mosaic That Is Innovation

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Take examples from the team behind the musical Hamilton to see how a culture of innovation thrives when disparate pieces connect.

Hamilton took Broadway by storm when it opened on August 6, 2015, and it has not let go. In 2018, the annual Kennedy Center Honors departed from its tradition of solely recognizing individual artists or bands for their contributions over the course of their careers and gave a special award to the musical Hamilton as a piece of work. The Kennedy Center celebrated Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, Alex Lacamoire, and Andy Blankenbuehler, the four key collaborators who brought the show into being, as "trailblazing creators of a transformative work that defies category." In introducing the award, Gloria Estefan proclaimed that "Hamilton turned the conventions of musical theater upside down, forever changing the look and sound of Broadway."

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No doubt, creativity and innovation were vital to the show's success. Likewise, they are essential to organizations making incremental and breakthrough improvements that enhance performance and provide a competitive advantage. Yet, according to a World Bank analysis, the rate of innovation as measured by total factor productivity of 21 of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries has declined since 2005. Economists have proposed several top-down solutions to reverse the decline in innovation, including breaking up monopolies and improving competition and competitiveness. However, less attention has focused on the bottom-up action of improving work cultures at the team and department level to spark creativity and innovation.

In our research and work with a wide variety of organizations for nearly 20 years, we've found that most innovative work cultures exhibit a high degree of human connection. Unfortunately, most organizational cultures do not tap into the power of human connection, missing out on a host of benefits, including spurring innovation.

So, what can employers learn from Hamilton's creation regarding fostering an environment that encourages creativity and innovation? Before looking behind the scenes at how the manner in which these individuals worked together brought out the best in each of them and contributed something remarkable to the world of musical theater, let's consider the nature of innovation.

Mosaic thinking

A closer look at processes that have led to innovation shows that creativity and innovation are social in nature and often arise when a fragment of knowledge from one domain is combined with a fragment in another domain. Pablo Picasso started out as a more traditional painter but then found his signature look by combining the styles of Western art and African masks. As another example, shoes and wheels were combined to create roller skates. And the waffle cone was born when a vendor who was selling a waffle-like pastry worked next to an ice cream vendor at the 1904 World's Fair. The ice cream vendor ran out of containers to hold the ice cream, so the waffle vendor came up with the idea of putting ice cream in the waffles after they had cooled off and hardened. The combination was a big hit.

The process of connecting fragments of knowledge from different domains has been referred to as blending and integrative thinking. We prefer to think of it as mosaic thinking. In conceptualizing the process of innovation, it helps to imagine fragments of knowledge as tiny ceramic tiles.

To create a mosaic, the artist's task is to combine the individual colored tiles in a way that creates a beautiful image that only makes sense and can be appreciated when seen as a whole work. Similarly, the innovator's task is to gather the disparate knowledge fragments spread out among different individuals and see the collective potential when the tiles are brought together in a new way.

Connection is key to creativity and innovation

For creativity and innovation to flourish, there must be an environment in which disparate ideas collide and are welcomed. As you may imagine, team and organizational cultures that maximize connection, communication, and cross-collaboration have a higher probability that distinct fragments of knowledge intersect and become the elements that form the basis for new products, processes, and organizational endeavors to come about.

Organizational cultures either support or impair the process of integrating different knowledge fragments. In our work with organizations, we've identified three types of relational cultures that are relevant to innovation: control, indifference, and connection.

In a culture of control, leaders and managers rule over those with less power, control, status, and influence. It is a culture of fear—individuals fear to speak up, take risks, or make mistakes. In that type of culture, it's difficult to discover new tiles and offer them for consideration because people are less open and less courageous to experiment.

A culture of indifference is characterized by people being so busy with their own tasks that they fail to develop collaborative and trusting relationships. The cultures of control and indifference are both low on connection, cooperation, and collaboration, so they impede the integration of knowledge fragments and act as a drag on innovation.

The optimal culture for creativity and innovation is a culture of connection. We define connection as a bond among people based on shared identity, empathy, and understanding that moves individuals toward group-centered membership. The most effective leaders connect with people when they communicate an inspiring vision, value people as human beings rather than treating them as a means to an end, and give them a voice to express their ideas and opinions. Vision, value, and voice create connection.

In a culture of connection, people feel connected to their supervisor, co-workers, senior leaders, and customers. Those feelings of connection spur communication, cooperation, and collaboration, which create a rich and robust marketplace of ideas and knowledge that helps everyone contribute tiles and even their viewpoint on making the mosaic.

A connection culture that sparks creativity and innovation is what many organizations are missing. Thus, employers must improve their work cultures so that innovation soars.

How harmony sparked Hamilton

At age 28, Miranda became the youngest person to receive a Tony Award for Best Original Score. In the Heights, the musical he wrote and starred in, took home three other Tony Awards in 2008, most notably the coveted prize of Best Musical. What would Miranda's next blockbuster be?

The story goes that he took a copy of Ron Chernow's bestselling biography of US Founding Father Alexander Hamilton along on a vacation. Reading poolside, Miranda believed that the emotions in hip-hop expressed the relentless energy of the immigrant striver Hamilton, who had come alone to New York as a teenager and rose to become an aide to General George Washington in the Revolutionary War and served as the first secretary of the US Treasury Department.

While working on various other creative projects, Miranda began writing musical numbers about Hamilton. A video of his performance of one song at the White House in 2009 went viral. He performed another one at a benefit concert in 2011. Kail, co-founder and director of an improvisation hip-hop group that Miranda was part of, saw the audience's enthusiastic reaction. Miranda had been talking with him about Hamilton for a while, and following the show, Kail approached Miranda about working regularly on the project together. They agreed to a schedule in which Miranda would write and Kail would provide feedback. Over a period of several years, they both created tiles that would become part of the Hamilton mosaic.

From all we've learned about Miranda through interviews, articles, documentaries, and a book he co-wrote about how Hamilton came to be, as well as observing how he interacts with others, it is our view that Miranda is not only a creative genius but also an outstanding connector with his family, community, and artistic collaborators. Connection enhances Miranda's life and work. He is highly empathetic, which gives him the ability to be attune to others' emotions. In an interview in O magazine, Miranda explains that empathy is "the number one tool in an artist's toolbox. You can't create art if you can't understand what someone else has been going through and then try to articulate it."

In addition to Kail, Miranda's creative team includes music director Lacamoire, and choreographer Blankenbuehler. Miranda says that he enjoys collaborating with them, trusts them, and respects their talents. In a television interview that CBS journalist John Dickerson conducted with the four key collaborators around the time they received the Kennedy Center Honors recognition, Miranda explains that the group has been through a lot of experiences together, describing it like a marriage or band, and that his favorite thing to do is to bring a new song to the group because he knows they're going to make it better.

Kail refers to the dynamic among the group as "harmony," evoking connection from blending individual voices into one in a way that results in a fullness and richness that a solo line does not have. The show, he says, is a sum of their parts. In the documentary Hamilton: One Shot to Broadway, Miranda underscores that point, explaining that the show is "a culmination of ... a lot of people putting a lot of hard work in and, particularly Tommy Kail who got all of the art forms involved in making a musical and made them into one cohesive thing called Hamilton." Kail told Dickerson he hopes the resulting harmony among the people involved in the musical becomes part of the show's legacy.

Others who contributed tiles to the mosaic include the individuals who performed as part of the original cast; producer Jeffrey Sellers; and those involved in creating the wardrobe, set design, sound, lighting, etc. The result? An artistic and cultural masterpiece that has transformed modern theater, inspiring and capturing millions of people's imaginations.

Connection among a group of individuals sparked a creative energy and cultivated a culture of connection that propelled the show to the pinnacle of success.

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Create the environment for something new through connection

The connection culture elements of vision, value, and voice are clearly at work in the culture that the Hamilton collaborators have established and in which they are able to do great work together. Here are several takeaways that teams and organizations outside the musical theater world can apply.

People are more engaged in their work and connected to their colleagues when leaders articulate the vision. That includes the end goal, why it matters, how they are going to get there, and what each person's role is in the whole effort. In the CBS interview, Kail explains that by helping new cast members understand the storytelling—the where and why of a certain idea—they catch the vision and bring their A game to the performance. In addition, he states in Hamilton: One Shot to Broadway that "Everybody onstage and offstage in this company is working at the absolute top of their game."

Valuing one another is a critical element in a connection culture. Therefore, hire for connection skills as well as competency. Kail embodies that principle by getting to know the actors offstage so he can adapt to the way each one is wired. In the documentary, he explains that "My job is to try to create an environment where the writer can feel nurtured and supported and alive ... and find other people ... to try to realize the show."

And in the CBS interview, Kail notes how respectful the people he works with are to one another and that each of them believes "You can develop something of high quality without acrimony or raising your voice."

Ensure that people have a voice to express their opinions and ideas, and sincerely consider that input. In Hamilton: The Revolution, a behind-the-scenes book that Miranda co-authored with Jeremy McCarter about creating the show, Miranda reveals that "endless conversations" sometimes create the right moment: "In these meetings, I find I'm more the editor than the writer—Alex will have 50 musical ideas, Andy will have 50 staging ideas, and Tommy and I will sift [through them]."

In the group interview with Dickerson, Lacamoire reflects on how connection affects him: "A lot of what we do can be so solitary," he explains. "When we get in a room and they finally get to hear [what I've been working on] and it sparks something … even if it starts that dialogue, that's what I live for."

Miranda notes, "We respond to each other's energy in a way that's really positive." In reference to giving people a voice, Kail says that it's important to make people feel safe so they will share their ideas and then to consider everyone's ideas. He points out that collaboration has much to do with having a person's contribution recognized and heard, adopting a posture of "Maybe. Let me see what you had in mind" rather than "No." He believes that giving people a voice is what Hamilton does for everyone involved.

Attributes to strive for

Encouragement; respect; trust; a posture of open- mindedness; a sense of belonging; and leaders who provide autonomy, promote collaboration, and keep people in the loop on the big picture—those are some of the attributes we see in teams or groups that have a connection culture.

Is the culture in your group connecting and conducive to innovation, or is it a culture that is disconnecting because of control or indifference that thus impedes innovation? By fostering an environment that has a high degree of connection, you will set the stage for tiles to come forward through a flow of knowledge and creative conversations that lead to a mosaic no one else has created before.

Portions of this article were adapted from Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.

About the Author

Michael Lee Stallard (www.MichaelLeeStallard.com) is a thought leader, author, speaker, and expert on how human connection in culture affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. He is the president and co-founder of E Pluribus Partners and the Connection Culture Group. Michael is the primary author of Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity, and Productivity and Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding (ATD Press).

Michael has appeared in media outlets worldwide, including Entrepreneur, Financial Times, Fast Company, Forbes, Fox Business, Inc., Knowledge@Wharton, Leader to Leader, New York Times and Wall Street Journal. His clients have included Costco, Lockheed Martin, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, NASA, Scotiabank, U.S. Department of Treasury, and Qualcomm. Texas Christian University founded the TCU Center for Connection Culture to advance Michael and his colleagues' ideas at TCU and in higher education.

About the Author

Katharine P. Stallard is a partner at Connection Culture Group. In addition to being a contributor to Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work, she has co-authored articles that have appeared in Leader to Leader and HR Magazine.