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:

3 thoughts on “Group Genius: Radical in 2007, Conventional Wisdom Today

  1. Thank you for this book review and much more… The reminder of your seven key characteristics is great – so aligned with the creativity emerging from productive teams everywhere!

    I am still so connected with the fifth key characteristic: “Surprising questions emerge.” Whether in the examples you and the others point to in their books, some cited here, or in my focus on education at all levels from birth to lifelong, it’s the self- and group-assessment – the questions – that tease out the interplay among ideas that lead to creativity and innovation in all (multidisciplinary) fields, most especially for me in learning!!!

    I have always liked your use of the word “surprising.” To me, it’s the emergence of the (surprising) innovative and creative outcomes that provides the sparks that grow and sustain the motivation to sustain the efforts over the time needed for the team to remain cohesive and productive, for the learners to truly understand and for visions of useable connectivity and skills to emerge.

    Thanks as always for “Group Genius” and your blog posts!!!

  2. Thank you! In the book I use the term “equivocality” from linguistics–it means, each member of the group offers something that can be interpreted in many different ways. Then, someone else picks it up and takes it in a different direction. That’s when surprising questions emerge.

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