My research shows that innovation always emerges from collaborative groups and distributed social networks. My 2007 book Group Genius proves that the lone inventor is a myth. All creativity emerges from many contributions, from many different people, distributed through space and time.
The most innovative teams, organizations, and economic systems are the ones that enable everyone’s ideas to come together most effectively. I can talk for hours about the implications of this research for organizational structure and culture, but I tend to avoid discussing the political and economic implications. Do you think that the “group genius” message is implicitly critical of Capitalism–with its narrative of the solitary individual, the hard-working entrepreneur, fighting against entrenched interests? And if so, wouldn’t group genius then be associated with Socialism, with collective systems that have everyone working together toward a common goal?
If you’re intrigued by this question, you should read columnist Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal:
When future historians look back on our times, they will ask, why did the U.S. dominate all its peers when it came to the really big innovations? It didn’t happen because enlightened mandarins in the federal bureaucracy and national labs were peering around the corners of the future. Innovation happens when the federal government isn’t paying attention, and because entrepreneurs can go against the grain and ignore the consensus of experts. And, because our capital markets are sometimes willing to bet against those experts.
Innovation depends less on developing specific ideas than it does on creating broad spaces. Autocracies can always cultivate their chess champions, piano prodigies and nuclear engineers; they can always mobilize their top 1% to accomplish some task. The autocrats’ quandary is what to do with the remaining 99%. They have no real answer.
A free society that is willing to place millions of small bets on persons unknown and things unseen doesn’t have this problem. Flexibility is its true test of strength. Success is a result of experiment not design. Failure is tolerable to the extent that adaptation is possible.
This is the American secret, which we often forget because we can’t imagine it any other way. It’s why we are slightly shocked to find ourselves coming out ahead. [I have paraphrased Stephens’ words a bit here and there…]
Stephens ends by attributing the success of the United States to group genius:
We are larger than our leaders. We are better than our politics. We are wiser than our culture. We are smarter than our ideas.