Group Genius: Today It’s the Accepted Wisdom

In 2007, my business book Group Genius  was one of the first books about collaboration and innovation. Since 2007, a lot more books have been published on that topic, each one affirming the points in my book. That’s because Group Genius  was grounded in scientific research, and that research has stood the test of time.

The March 13 article “In Search of the Perfect Team” in the Wall Street Journal* makes the same recommendations that I did in 2007:

  • “Each member of the team is engaged” (WSJ)–everyone talks and listens about the same. This is in Group Genius, pp. 50-51
  • “There are a diversity of ideas, and everyone is willing to consider new ideas” (WSJ)–In Group Genius, pp. 70-72, also pp. 14-15
  • “Everyone is setting goals for a project” (WSJ)–each person explores something slightly different, but goes in the same direction. This tension is one of the main themes of Group Genius, but it’s most explicit on pp. 44-46.

The WSJ  article connects these themes to new technologies, like Slack, and Google’s data-based approach to team productivity in their People Operations Department. These help drive collaboration; I talk about Slack and also Google’s research in the forthcoming second edition of Group Genius  (coming this May!). But this technology doesn’t change the underlying social dynamics of effective collaboration. Stay grounded in the research, and you’ll stand the test of time.

*2017, May 13, “In search of a perfect team.” Stu Wu, Wall Street Journal, p. R6.

We Never Think Alone

Here’s a wonderful new book, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. The authors, professors Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman, argue that it’s “a misunderstanding of knowledge” to think that “it goes on between our ears.”

What really sets human beings apart is not our individual mental capacity. The secret to our success is our ability to jointly pursue complex goals by dividing cognitive labor. All of our world-altering innovations were made possible by this ability. Each of us knows only a little bit, but together we can achieve remarkable feats. Knowledge isn’t in my head or in your head. It’s shared.

I love it! I made the same point in my book Group Genius: creativity isn’t really about what’s going on inside your head. Of course, each person’s mind plays a key role in innovation; but creativity is always social, even when you’re alone. Lots of us have good ideas when we’re alone, but we can only have those ideas because of previous conversations, interactions, and encounters–with other people, with other ideas, participating in social networks.

Check out Fernbach’s and Sloman’s book The Knowledge Illusion!

The quotations above are from a NYTimes article by Fernbach and Sloman.

Collaborative Technology Leads to Collaborative Leadership

In my 2007 book Group Genius, I predicted that the organization of the future would drive innovation with collaboration.

In the ten years since, this prediction has largely come true. Yesterday the Wall Street Journal described how several big companies have shifted to a more collaborative, more innovative organizational structure–enabled by collaborative software that didn’t exist back in 2007, like Slack or Microsoft Teams. This is a big reason why I’ve written a second edition of Group Genius (to be published later this year).

New data-driven capabilities are breaking down barriers between formerly siloed business units, flattening out management structures and streamlining production processes, prompting many firms to redraw leadership roles and responsibilities.

Companies moving toward innovative structures include Equifax, Liberty Mutual, and Procter & Gamble. For example, Equifax is moving to “small, cross-functional teams”. And the role of leaders changes, too: “rather than issue top-down directives, these managers instead strive to help self-directed teams leverage collaboration and sharing tools.” Managers are changing from “dictating how things should be done” to acting more like coaches who guide collaborative teams.

My own research on collaboration and creativity explains why and how this works: Innovation emerges, bottom up, from improvisational, nonlinear, and unpredictable processes. The organizations that can channel and foster this bottom-up, emergent process, will be the winners in the innovation competition of the future.

The organizational structures and cultures that lead to innovation have always been collaborative, distributed, and improvisational. Even before the Internet, a few rare organizations were able to design for innovation and collaboration. But today, Internet-based collaboration software is making it a lot easier for companies to shift to innovative organization designs.

Dancing in the Street

Here’s the creative process behind the hit song by Martha and the Vandellas, “Dancing in the Street.” It’s a story of collaboration and of the zigzagging creative process, as reported to Marc Myers in the WSJ.

  1. In early 1964, songwriter Ivy Jo Hunter was in a Motown studio, playing around on a piano and trying to come up with a song. She started with her left hand, playing a bass rhythm. Then, she developed a melody and some chords. But what she had in mind, she couldn’t play with just two hands. So she went to another songwriter, Paul Riser.
  2. Paul and Ivy talked it out, and then Paul wrote out the music. Paul then created a chord sheet for the house rhythm section, the Funk Brothers. Paul and Ivy knew that the Funk Brothers could make just about any sketch of a song turn into something awesome. The goal was to get the rhythm track on tape, to then work on some lyricS.
  3. Ivy took the tape to producer Mickey Stevenson’s house, because Mickey had a rehearsal room in his attic. Ivy wrote melancholy lyrics; that’s the way he heard the song.
  4. Marvin Gaye just happened to be at the same house. Marvin and Mickey needed a song for singer Kim Weston. Ivy’s ballad lyrics seemed perfect for Kim, but then Marvin had a different idea for the song.
  5. Marvin thought the melancholy lyrics weren’t right for the music. Marvin thought the music was upbeat, just like “dancing in the street.” Then, he realized that could be the name of the song!
  6. Ivy returned to the song and wrote completely different lyrics, for this new idea. Marvin then added various new lyrics.
  7. They still thought the song was going to be Kim’s song. Marvin was recording a vocal demo, to play for Kim, but he couldn’t sing it quite right. Martha Reeves just happened to be in the studio at that time, so they asked her to give it a shot. To everyone’s surprise, Martha totally nailed the song.
  8. The producer Mickey Stevenson said, “I was in big trouble. The song was supposed to be for Kim, and Martha had just aced it.”
  9. The next step was to add in the horn arrangement, and to overdub some percussion effects, like tambourine, and background vocals.

The song turned out to be very different from what we knew as “the Motown sound.” It was funkier, with its prominent bass line and drum beat. It was one of the most influential songs of the 1960s.

Many people think that songwriting is a solo act, where the writer spills her heart out and expresses deeply felt emotions. But just like every other form of creativity, the solitary creator is a myth. Songs, almost always, are created like everything else: Through a collaborative, wandering, unpredictable process.

Free Improvisation in Music Groups

There’s almost no research on group musical improvisation, and I’ve wondered about that for years. I’m a jazz pianist, and I’m fascinated by how different people can come together, and collectively create something that no one could have thought of alone.

So I’m excited to see a new study, of group free improvisation in music trios.* Two of my most respected British colleagues co-authored the study: Graeme Wilson and Raymond MacDonald.

They brought together 3 trios of improvising musicians, from Scotland and the North of England. The musicians were from a range of backgrounds, including voice and electronics. And just for extra measure, they also studied 2 more trios of visual artists who work with sound performance. The trios improvised in a studio for about five minutes. Then, the researchers interviewed each performer separately, replaying the tape of their improvisation, and asking them to explain “what they understood to be communicated by their own and other improvisers’ contributions” (p. 1032).

The main finding was that the musicians spent a lot of time thinking about whether to “maintain” what they were playing, or to “change” to something different. If they decided to change, either it was an initiation on their part, or a response to someone else’s contribution.  This is an “active and iterative” process.

If a change was a response, it was either an adoption (doing something really similar to the other musician’s initiation), an augmentation (adopting one element of the partner, but modifying another element), or a contrast (play something really different, but that’s complementary). Here’s the bottom line:

The representation is of an open-ended iterative cycle where all choices lead to a subsequent reconsideration, with each trio member constantly “scanning” the emergent sound of the piece and actions of their collaborators. The improvisation was sometimes characterized by interviewees as an external entity or process, within which events arose independently of those creating it. (p. 1035)

That’s exactly my own experience with group improvisation, and in my own research, every musician that I interviewed spoke in very similar terms, about iteration, interaction, and the emergence of something greater than the individual musicians.

* Wilson, Graeme B., Macdonald, Raymond A. R. (2016). Musical choices during group free improvisation: A qualitative psychological investigation. Psychology of Music, 44(5), 1029-1043.

The Zig Zag Process of Musical Creativity: The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”

When most people think of creativity, they think of the solitary lone genius, creating in silence far from the distractions of other people. Musical composition seems to be a great example of solitary creativity: The image of the singer-songwriter, writing songs about her own personal life and relationships. But this kind of musical creativity is rare. Most songs are composed in a highly collaborative process. One example is the Beach Boys song “Good Vibrations,” which was a flower-power love song.

The band spent 7 months in the studio producing the song. A new interview with four members of the group reveals the wandering, zigzagging, collaborative creative process. Here are a few of the steps in the process:

  1. At the age of 14, a dog barked at Brian Wilson’s mom. She said “Sometimes dogs pick up vibrations from people.”
  2. Nine years later, Wilson remembered this statement, and wrote a short chord progression for a song based on what his mom said. No lyrics were written yet.
  3. Combining cello and electro-theremin on the chorus was his brother Carl’s idea.
  4. They had the instrumentals recorded, and they liked what they heard on the tape, but there still weren’t lyrics for the song. At the time, Wilson was writing lyrics together with Tony Asher. When they first sat down, Wilson was calling the song “Good Vibes.” Asher thought “vibes” sounded cheap and trivial, and suggested “vibrations.”
  5. Asher wrote the first verse and chorus, including “good, good, good, good vibrations.”
  6. At the time, it didn’t really come together, and they put the song aside for a while.
  7. Later, Wilson asked musician Mike Love to come up with some lyrics for the same song. He ended up liking Mike’s lyrics better. (Mike was the one who coined the word “excitations.”)
  8. Since they wrote the first draft of the lyrics, the drug culture of hippies and flower power had emerged in the public eye. Mike was finally ready to write the verses. In the spirit of the newly trending flower power, he wrote lyrics including “I love the colorful clothes she wears and the way the sunlight plays upon her hair.”
  9. A few lines later is the line “on the wind that lifts her perfume through the air.” His original draft said “incense” instead of “perfume” but he decided that incense would be “a little much for Middle America.”
  10. Wilson arranged the vocals for these lyrics. In the studio, Wilson dropped the words “we find” from the end of the second verse, so the bass and drums would come through better.
  11. When the band listened to the initial vocal tracks, they realized the song needed some sort of contrast. Mike Love and Brian Wilson came up with a ballad duet inspired by Stephen Foster’s songs, and they added it as a bridge.

Brian Wilson was a very creative individual, but even Wilson worked in a collaborative web, and the songs we know and love came out of a collaborative, emergent, unpredictable, wandering process.

Magic Carpet Ride: How Music Gets Created

Here’s a story of the unpredictable, improvisational process of creativity. It’s the story of how the 1968 hit song “Magic Carpet Ride” was created by the band Steppenwolf.

Maybe the process works this way: A songwriter writes a song, usually alone, and then gathers the band together to perform the song. If that’s what happens, then musical creativity is a solitary act. But that’s not how most songs are created. They emerge from collaboration, with unpredictable twists and turns.

Here’s the creative process behind “Magic Carpet Ride,” according to two of the musicians who played on the recording:

  1. A guitarist named Mars Bonfire (not his birth name!), who was not in the band, visited the studio and was playing a new song he’d written.
  2. At some point, the bass player, Rushton Moreve, starting playing a bouncy riff that he always played on sound checks on the band’s first tour, but which had never been part of any song.
  3. Mars liked the bass line, and started playing some chords with it. Not related to his original song; they were just playing around and having fun.
  4. The recording engineers in the sound booth loved it. They said “Hey, keep doing that. That’s really good.”
  5. Then, the whole band joined in. But all they had was that one-measure bass riff. What else could they add?
  6. Mars improvised some chords and suggested they could be an instrumental interlude. (Later, singer John Kay would write lyrics for this interlude that made it into the final song: “Close your eyes girl/look inside girl/let the sound take you away”)
  7. The lead guitarist, Michael Monarch, loved thick distorted guitar sounds. John asked Michael to do some loud feedback through his amp, and then John improvised matching lines in the high register. They improvised the same few bars twice.
  8. The recording engineers had actually hit the “record” button, even though John and Michael were just playing around. For the final recording, the engineers edited together pieces of the two different takes, to make it sound better.
  9. Everyone loved the track they’d recorded, but they still needed lyrics. John took home a cassette and played it in his home stereo, trying to think of lyrics that worked. He’d just bought a new stereo and it was high-end, the best available. John started singing lyrics about how awesome his stereo sounded: “right between my sound machine/On a cloud of sound” and then the rest of the lyrics were improvised after that.

Anyway…by now you’ve probably stopped reading. But at least, you can see the long and unpredictable creative process. This is how music is created, the music that we hear and love. It doesn’t come from the mind of an inspired, or tortured, songwriter–it emerges from a collaborative process.

  • This story is taken from Marc Myers in the Wall Street Journal, Friday July 15, 2016, page D6.
  • You might also want to read John Seabrook’s book The Song Machine about today’s pop music hits.