Group Genius: Radical in 2007, Conventional Wisdom Today

In 2007, my book Group Genius made a radical claim: The discipline of psychology could never explain creativity, because creativity emerges from collaborative groups and networks. In 2007, this put me at odds with most of my creativity research colleagues; they studied solitary individuals. And it was a bit cutting edge for the business world, too; most business books were still focused on enhancing the creative potential of each employee:

We’re drawn to the image of the lone genius whose mystical moment of insight changes the world. But the lone genius is a myth; instead, it’s group genius that generates breakthrough innovation. Collaboration drives creativity because innovation always emerges from a series of sparks–never a single flash of insight. (p. 7)

My timing turned out to be perfect for the business world. In 2007, top executives were beginning to realize that collaboration was the key to innovation. They were eager to learn about my seven key characteristics of effective creative teams and companies:

  1. Innovation emerges over time
  2. Successful collaborative teams practice deep listening
  3. Team members build on their collaborator’s ideas
  4. Only afterwards does the meaning of each idea become clear
  5. Surprising questions emerge
  6. Innovation is inefficient
  7. Innovation emerges from the bottom up

In recent years, several new books have appeared that reinforce my argument: Great creativity always emerges over time, from collaborative pairs, teams, and distributed networks. I’ve just read two wonderful books that make a particularly strong case for collaborative creativity:

Both books are wonderfully written. They are true to the science and the historical record. Each of them have turned up surprising and little-known details about creativity. If you read these books, along with Group Genius, you’ll have a really good understanding of what science has discovered about innovation.

Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From

Johnson’s central claim is that good ideas don’t come from inside some genius’s brain:

If we want to understand where good ideas come from, we have to put them in context. The argument of this book is that a series of shared properties and patterns recur again and again in unusually fertile environments. (p. 17)

In the last three chapters of Group Genius, I describe the “collaborative webs” that foster innovation, and the characteristics of environments that make them grow. Johnson’s book builds on my work, and adds in some really fascinating stories. (He comes to the same conclusion that I do about what sort of intellectual property law regime results in the greatest innovation.) Consistent with my seven points above, he argues that innovation emerges from tinkering and bricolage. The most innovative environments are like my collaborative webs:

Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts. (p. 35) [These environments have] a capacity to make new connections with as many other elements as possible. And a “randomizing” environment that encourages collisions between all the elements in the system. (p. 51) The most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans at a table. (p. 61)

Johnson cites a lot of the same research that I do, and tells many of the same stories (Kevin Dunbar’s research; Gruber’s book about Darwin’s notebooks; brainstorming research; Burt’s research on structural holes; MIT’s Building 20). He echoes my concept of group flow with his term collective flow (both of us building on Dr. Csikszentmihalyi).

Johnson’s book is a fascinating read; he’s a great storyteller. In the last chapter, he comes to the same conclusion that I did in 2007:

A majority of breakthrough ideas emerge in collaborative environments. (p. 228)

Walter Isaacson, The Innovators

Isaacson’s book focuses more narrowly–on the technology innovations that resulted in today’s tablet, smartphone, networked world. We sometimes take this world for granted, but it didn’t exist just a few years ago. I’m surprised to see how well Isaacson’s book is selling, because it’s highly detailed and very focused. Maybe there are more nerds out there that I realized! Personally, I loved it, because I participated in this history. I arrived at MIT in 1978, and received my computer science degree in 1982. I did my undergraduate thesis on MIT’s version of the Xerox PARC Smalltalk computer, the LISP Machine, so I was using a windows and mouse interface as early as 1980. I played the original video game, Space War, in the MIT student center. I remember how cool it was to use the Arpanet and log in to computers all over the world (one country I remember logging into was Norway). There were no passwords and no security; when I wanted to read a draft of Professor Marvin Minsky’s new book, I just went into his personal file folders and read his drafts. I met Richard Stallman, who tried to get me to participate in his “Free Unix!” project. Isaacson’s book was perfect for me.

Chapter after chapter, he takes up the core innovations: Computer hardware. Software and programming. Microchips. Video games. The Internet. The personal computer. And every single one emerged from collaboration:

The main lesson to draw from the birth of computers is that innovation is usually a group effort, involving collaboration between visionaries and engineers, and that creativity comes from drawing on many sources. Only in storybooks do inventions come like a thunderbolt, or a lightbulb popping out of the head of a lone individual in a basement or a garret or a garage. (p. 85)

The formation of ideas was shaped more by the iterative interplay within the group than by an individual tossing in a wholly original concept. The sparks come from ideas rubbing against each other rather than as bolts out of the blue. (p. 110)

As with Johnson’s book, Isaacson tells several of the same stories I tell in Group Genius: Xerox PARC, Richard Stallman and GNU/Linux, how the windows-and-mouse interface emerged from successive incremental ideas. He comes to the same conclusion I did in 2007:

First and foremost is that creativity is a collaborative process. Innovation comes from teams more often than from the lightbulb moments of lone geniuses. (p. 479)

Like any author, I hope that my book stands the test of time. Group Genius contains many stories that aren’t in these books: The creation of the airplane, the mountain bike, the Monopoly boardgame, emergency and disaster response teams, Honda’s motorcycles, basketball teams, the ATM cash machine, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and more. And, I tend to provide a bit more practical advice for how to use this research to be more creative. So if you like these two books, I hope you’ll read mine too!

It’s About the Group, Genius

But what about those moments when you have a sudden realization, you get an idea while taking a walk, you experience a flash of insight? Isn’t that still really about solitary processes within your own private brain? No:

Researchers have discovered that the mind itself is filled with a kind of internal collaboration, that even the insights that emerge when you’re completely alone can be traced back to previous collaborations. (Group Genius, p. xii)

Forget the myths about historical inventors; the truth is always a story of group genius. (Group Genius, p. xiii)

Standing against this new consensus about how creativity and innovation work, many of my creativity research colleagues remain focused on individual creativity. If you skim the pages of the Creativity Research Journal, you’ll see almost exclusively psychological research that focuses on mental processes inside the minds of solitary people. But this narrow focus is holding us back, as I write at the end of Group Genius:

If you believe that creativity is reserved for special geniuses, you’re more likely to think that you can’t be creative. If you believe that creativity is an unexplainable gift that happens in a magical flash of insight, you won’t invest in the hard and sustained work that it takes to generate a long string of small sparks. If you believe that creativity happens to nonconforming, solo operators, you won’t work together with others to build group genius. (p. 225-226)

We need an interdisciplinary science of creativity, one that brings together psychologists with scholars who study groups, teams, and collaborative webs in organizations. Here’s what I hoped for in my 2012 overview of creativity research, Explaining Creativity:

Creativity research in the future will be increasingly interdisciplinary, bringing together scientists who are experts in multiple levels of analysis–neurons, mental states, groups, and organizations. An interdisciplinary science of creativity has the potential to provide a more complete scientific explanation of how new things emerge from human activity. (pp. 432-433)

Other books about collaborative creativity

My 2007 book wasn’t the first to emphasis the power of collaboration. I built on prior work by adding insights from my own scientific research, on jazz ensembles and improv theater groups, using interaction analysis methodology, and I wove it together with some cool case studies. Prior books that I loved include:

Some books after 2008 that jive with Group Genius include:

If You’re an Innovator, You Should Switch to Microsoft Windows

In 2012, Microsoft came up with the first innovation in personal computer operating systems in almost 40 years.

Not Apple. Not Google.


Windows 8, released by Microsoft in 2012, is the first new user interface since Xerox PARC created the mouse-and-windows desktop visual metaphor in the 1970s. That was long before we had smartphones and touch screens and the cloud. For Windows 8, instead of incremental innovation, Microsoft chose the path of radical innovation. They asked: What would a user interface look like if we started from scratch? If we designed for touch screens and smartphones and tablets and cloud connected devices, instead of big chunky office computers?

Of course, the icons would be bigger, making them easier to touch. (Those tiny icons are designed to be clicked by a mouse, not touched by a finger.)

That means you’d have to ditch the desktop background, but that’s just wasted space anyway.

Now that the icons are bigger, you can display useful information on the icons.

You’d make everything big enough to touch with your finger, and you wouldn’t need a mouse or a touchpad anymore.

Everything would automatically sync between devices through the cloud.

This is exactly what Microsoft did with Windows 8 in 2012, and after two years using these devices, I’m convinced the user experience is far superior. In 2013, my Windows XP devices were old, I was moving to a new job, and I was ready for a completely new set of hardware. I considered going all in with new Apple devices; I had an iPhone and I loved it. And then, I considered Windows 8, and I realized pretty quickly that it’s a better design for today’s computer devices–especially mobile devices.

Surface Pro

I purchased a Windows 8 phone, two Windows 8 desktop computers (one for home and one for the office), a Windows Pro Surface tablet, and a Lenovo Yoga. From day one, everything worked seamlessly and I’ve never looked back. I especially love using the tablets (Surface and Yoga) and the smartphone. (Often when I flip over my Lenovo Yoga, someone in the meeting will give it a look of fascination, and ask “Is that an Apple?”) Across all five devices, everything syncs automatically: my Outlook contacts and calendar and email, my documents. And I have one seamless user experience. (Try touching your finger on the screen on your Apple computer.)

Who knows why Apple and Google (with Android) didn’t use good design thinking and take the path of radical innovation? I generally respect those companies and they’ve generated some awesome innovations. But with computing devices, Apple and Google have chosen the path of incremental innovation. Let’s all thank Microsoft for breaking out of the industry’s groupthink.

Like many innovators, Microsoft got a lot of hate for breaking the conventional mold. A lot of people were used to holding their mouses all day long, and they got confused. Developers often don’t release their apps for Windows phones (only 3 percent of smartphone sales). Many tech reporters call Windows 8 an “international calamity” or much worse. They should know better.

People were used to a simple formula: Apple equals innovation, Microsoft equals boring and corporate. Face it, tech reporters: the formula isn’t true anymore.

Owning an Apple laptop used to mean you were cool. It symbolized sleek design and individuality. It made you feel a bit more creative. But now using an Apple just shows that you’re like everyone else, and you don’t like change. Designers, innovators, and creatives should know better. It’s time to switch to a user interface experience that’s designed for the 21st century.

If you believe in good design, if you’re an innovator, if you’re committed to well-designed user experience, you should be using Windows devices.

Also see this blog post “Farewell, Desktop Metaphor”

Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation

Collective Genius is a wonderful new book by a team led by Professor Linda A. Hill of Harvard Business School. Of course, I had to read it, because my own business book is called Group Genius. With such similar titles, it’s not surprising there’s a lot of overlap with my book: we cite a lot of the same research, we choose many of the same companies for our case studies, and we provide very similar advice for leaders. Here are some quotations that resonated with my research:

People apparently prefer to believe in the rugged individualism of discovery, perhaps because they rarely get to see the sausage-making process behind every breakthrough innovation. Three decades of research has clearly revealed that innovation is most often a group effort. [Here, they cite Group Genius and many other books with similar findings.] The process of innovation needs to be collaborative because innovations most often arise from the interplay of ideas that occur during the interactions of people with diverse expertise, experience, or points of view. Flashes of insight may play a role, but most often they simply build on and contribute to the collaborative work of others. (pp. 16-17)

What makes this new book somewhat different from mine is that this book is squarely targeted at managers–it provides very practical advice, in the three-bullet-point style common in executive education programs. For example, the three key things that effective leaders of innovation do are (1) create collaborative organizations, (2) foster discovery-driven learning, (3) support and encourage integrative decision making. Their main foil is the stereotype that the most effective leader is someone who has a strong vision, and then persuades everyone else to execute that vision. Instead, they argue,

Great leaders of innovation see their role not as take-charge direction setters but primarily as creators of a context in which others are willing and able to make innovation happen. (p. 225)

In Group Genius, I call this type of context the “collaborative web” and I provide advice on how to foster their emergence. Since Group Genius was published in 2007, I’ve done countless executive education workshops for corporate leaders, and as I’ve translated the research from my book into workable advice for executives, my own message has become much more focused on leadership practice. This book is very similar in style and spirit to my one-day workshops. Practicing executives will definitely benefit from this book, but if you have the money, you should fly in Linda Hill, or myself, to do a one-day workshop with your leadership team. I suspect this book started out as a one-day workshop and then, in conversation with a literary agent and an acquisition editor, it gradually grew into this book. As a fellow business book author, I’m particularly impressed by their long list of CEO endorsements, by folks like Tim Brown (IDEO), Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn), Terri Kelly (Gore), and Tony Hsieh (Zappos). If you’re looking for a good read for your next business flight, or you can’t afford our speaking fees, I definitely recommend this book.

Here Come the Disrupters: Insights into Entrepreneurship in Foreign Affairs Magazine

If you care about entrepreneurship, you need to read the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine (January/February 2015). The cover title is Here Come the Disrupters—the Special Entrepreneurship Issue. You’ll find influential, smart, and high-powered writers and interviewees, including Jeff Bezos (founder of, Michael Moritz (one of the most successful technology venture capitalists), Robert Litan (an economist at the Brookings Institution), Mariana Mazzucato (Professor at the University of Sussex and author of The Entrepreneurial State), and even Harvard’s Clayton Christensen. Here are my key takeaways:

1. Innovation zigs and zags

New ventures never end up being successful according to the original plan. Michael Moritz, an early investor in Google, points out that (1) at that time, most experts thought it was already too late to start a new search company, and (2) the company didn’t start off in the business that it eventually tapped. (Google started by selling licenses for its technology to web sites and corporations, before it stumbled on an algorithm that ranked advertisements, and that’s what transformed the business.) Niklas Zennstrom, co-founder of Skype, points out that when they started the company, they couldn’t have known that all laptops would soon have microphones, and not long after that, that they would all have video cameras.

Creativity research has come to the same conclusion. That’s why my latest book is called Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity.

2. The social value of entrepreneurship

Innovation and entrepreneurship provide social benefits to society. Even though they make a few people very rich, they increase the quality of life for everyone. In his interview, Zennstrom says:

On balance, disruptive innovation is very positive. For customers, it’s fantastic. Over the long term, if you don’t have disruptive innovation, you will become a country or a market full of incumbents and will eventually be disrupted by somebody else.

Yes, the huge wealth generated by new technological innovations has gone to a relative few people, and many new technologies have put people out of work and lowered wages. But as Zennstrom points out,

Technology itself is not creating poverty. If anything, technology makes things cheaper and allows people who are living in challenging conditions to get access to more opportunities.

3. The role of government

Mariana Mazzucato has been getting a lot of press lately with her new book, The Entrepreneurial State. She argues that all innovations originate with government funding and support—not from private sector market competition, and not from visionary venture capitalists or entrepreneurs. In her article in this special issue, you’ll get a good overview of her argument. But her view is explicitly rejected by all of the other experts. They all agree that government has a role to play, but much more limited than what Mazzucato advocates: the experts believe that the government’s most important role is funding basic research at universities and private think tanks. After all, everyone knows that Silicon Valley is in Palo Alto because of Stanford University and the federally funded research that took place there. These experts also believe that government should provide support systems like education and health care, and remove burdensome regulations that block innovation, particularly relating to employment (get rid of noncompete clauses; reduce certification requirements for various workplace functions). Governments should allow greater immigration and provide tax breaks for early-stage investing. Liberals will like some of these ideas, and conservatives will like others. Innovation research can’t be easily shoehorned into either end of the political spectrum.

Those are my three big takeaways. Here are some highlights I enjoyed from each of the articles, if you’re interested in more details.

Interview with Michael Moritz (early stage investor)

Do you know from the beginning that a Google is going to be a Google?

No. It’s the PR people and the marketers and the revisionists who proclaim that everything was obvious from day one. On day one, nothing is obvious, because all you’re doing is trying to concentrate on getting through the first six months.

If we or the founders are honest about what we thought was possible on day one…we consistently underestimate the potential of a company that becomes great.

What are the most important qualities for an entrepreneur to have?

Clarity of thought. The ability to communicate clearly. A great sense of mission. A massive willingness to persevere. A willingness to make painful decisions. Extraordinary energy.

What can governments do to increase the scale and quality of entrepreneurship?

First, help to underwrite the cost of fundamental basic research that occurs within universities.

The state’s role in the evolution of technology is best aimed at fueling adventures of the mind into the impossible reaches. That is very long range, and it’s the sort of thing that almost no companies have the wherewithal to contemplate.

[Finally, because of the rapid change caused by creative destruction] the government has to provide a fantastic educational system so that people have the skills and wherewithal to be able to make a living for themselves in a world where manual endeavor is no longer valued.

Interview with Niklas Zennstrom (co-founder of Kazaa and Skype)

[The most important qualities for an entrepreneur are] courage—because as an entrepreneur, you’re trying to do something that no one has done before, and a lot of people will try to discourage you….Another important thing is curiosity….And the ability to question the status quo, to ask why things cannot be done in a different way.

[A lot of success depends on luck and timing that you can’t predict. The success of Skype depended on more widespread broadband, which in fact happened. And then: when we launched, laptop computers mostly did not have microphones. But then soon after, all laptops started to be shipped with microphones.] And the year we launched video coincided with all laptop manufacturers starting to install video cameras into their computers. Is that luck? Is that skill? It’s timing. We could not foresee everything.

Robert Litan (An economist who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution)

Litan notes that over the past 30 years, the rate of start-up formation in the U.S. has slowed down a lot. He argues that the U.S. government needs to (1) allow more immigration, (2) reduce business regulations, (3) provide free health care to all workers, (4) improve the education system. (Again, note that these are half liberal and half conservative recommendations.)

Closing the wage gap…will require significantly overhauling public education systems so that they can better teach technological literacy….Better education represents the best change to level the playing field.

James Bessen (Lecturer at Boston University)

Bessen argues that in recent years, government policies in the U.S. have increasingly favored entrenched special interests, stifling new innovation startups. He argues for a return to the original U.S. model, where government provides research funding to universities and a variety of private firms. Over the decades, this has been far more successful than the French and British model of providing funding to national telephone and computer companies. (Does anyone remember France’s Minitel?)

He argues that patent law, especially the 1990s extension of the law to cover software, favors larger established companies at the expense of smaller innovative startups. This change in law was largely due to the immense lobbying power of established, large companies.

He argues that states with “cumbersome employment regulations”, especially noncompete agreements, are blocking innovation. An additional block to innovation is “strict requirements for certification to work in certain fields”.

Mariana Mazzucato (author of The Entrepreneurial State)

Mazzucato has become the flag-bearer for a very leftist and distinctly European vision of innovation—the same model explicitly rejected by every other contributor to this special issue. She rejects the established wisdom among economists that governments have always been lousy at picking winners; she says

That view is as wrong as it is widespread…the state has historically served not as a meddler in the private sector but as a key partner of it. Across the entire innovation chain, from basic research to commercialization, governments have stepped up with needed investment that the private sector has been too scared to provide.

I think this is just a matter of which colored glasses you’re wearing. Everyone agrees that the U.S. military funded the ARPAnet, which later turned into the Internet. Everyone knows that the U.S. military originated GPS. Everyone agrees that governments should fund basic, long-range research. But it’s simply false that governments have led the way with commercialization; it’s false, and even crazy, to say that the private sector is “too scared” to drive innovation, implying that governments are braver, stronger, and smarter.

If Mazzucato were correct, then the most centralized economies with the largest governments would be the most innovative countries. But exactly the opposite has occurred: The most Capitalist countries, with the most vibrant private markets, have generated the great majority of worldwide innovation and entrepreneurship.

Clayton Christensen with Mezue and van Bever (Harvard University)

This article comes right after Mazzucato, and in the first paragraph, they reject her thesis:

It is not societies, governments, or industries that create jobs but companies and their leaders. It is entrepreneurs and businesses that choose to spend or not, invest or not, hire or not.

They make a really good point: in countries that have emphasized “top down” government-driven investments, the result has been “sustaining innovations”—small incremental improvements in existing technologies—rather than “market-creating” or “disruptive” innovations—and the latter generate greater value and wealth. I think this is exactly right, and it’s why countries with vibrant private sectors, access to venture capital, market competition, and minimal government involvement have been the most innovative.

How Art Gets Created (Homage to Howie Becker)

My approach to creativity was deeply inspired by Howie Becker’s 1982 book Art Worlds–a close analysis of the work done by painters, sculptors, and photographers, of course, but also all of the other roles necessary to get art done and to get it valued, sold, and talked about. Becker made a convincing argument that art doesn’t come from the solitary artist in the studio; there are many other people involved. They remain hidden only because we aren’t looking for them–we believe so much in the romantic myth of the solitary lone genius that we look right past everyone else involved in the collective creative process.

Basically, Becker believes that Yogi Berra was right: you really can observe the most by watching.

This quotation comes from a fascinating portrait of Becker in the latest New Yorker magazine. Becker is now 86 years old and spends most of his time in Paris, where he’s a huge academic star. Adam Gopnik interviewed Becker at a French restaurant, and here’s what Becker told Gopnik about how art gets created:

Mine is a view that–well, it takes a village to write a symphony and get it performed. It’s not just the composer. The great case for me is in film, because nobody ever figured out who the real artist is: the screenwriter or the director or who? Or, rather, everybody figured it out, but never figured out the same thing. Early on when I was reading about art, I read a book by Aljean Hametz on the making of “The Wizard of Oz.” She was the daughter of someone in the wardrobe department of M-G-M, and she explains that there were four directors of that film, and the guys who thought of the crucial thing, the change from black-and-white to color when the characters enter Oz, were the composer and the lyricist! In an important way, I took the list of credits at the end of a Hollywood film as my model of how artistic creation really happens.

Creativity consists of real people who are trying to get things done, largely by getting other people to do things that will assist them in their project. The resulting collective activity is something that perhaps no one wanted, but is the best everyone could get out of this situation, and therefore what they all, in effect, agreed to.

In a nutshell, this is the core message of my 2007 business book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. Of course I hope you read my book, but if you then want to go deeper, and really understand creativity, you have to read Howard Becker.

Desperately Needed: Entrepreneurs Under 30

The percentage of people under age 30 who own their own private business has reached a 24-year low: About 3.6% of households headed by adults younger than 30 owned stakes in private companies (Wall Street Journal, January 3-4, 2015). That is WAY down from 10.6% in 1989, and 6.1% in 2010. In 2013, the proportion of young adults who start a business each month dropped to its lowest level in at least 17 years (Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation). The U.S. “startup rate”–new firms as a percentage of all firms–fell by almost half between 1978 and 2011 (Brookings Institution).

What about all those news stories about young 20-somethings who just became multi-millionaires in the latest IPO? It turns out they are pretty rare exceptions. For a country to have a vibrant, innovative economy, you need lots more innovation, not just of the famous tech millionaire variety.

No one’s really sure why. It’s some combination of:

  • Difficulty raising money (no access to capital or credit)
  • Fear of failing leading young adults to be risk-averse
  • They haven’t acquired the skills and experience needed to start a successful business
  • In the U.S., we’re seeing an unusually strong job market, and high salaries, in established technology companies. So why take the risk, when you’ve got several strong job offers at successful companies, with good pay and benefits?

This is a big problem for the U.S., because as Harvard’s John Davis says,

We need startups not only for employment, but also for ideas. It’s part of the vitality of this country to have people starting new businesses and trying new things.

Amen! The Wall Street Journal article doesn’t suggest solutions. I have a few:

  • Increase entrepreneurship education in high school and in college
  • Reduce the costs of failure (free health care for everyone is a good start, something conservatives should support to foster new venture creation; also various forms of tax breaks and credits)
  • Increase availability of capital (perhaps with VC and accelerator funds)
  • Provide more opportunities for mentoring and entrepreneurship education, in accelerator and incubator spaces

What do you think we should do to foster more entrepreneurship in our young adults?