Thursday, June 14, 2007

Book Review: Group Genius

The path to becoming more innovative often requires debunking a number of myths or commonly held beliefs. For instance, the idea that a lone genius is often responsible for an invention or innovation. In fact, most innovations or inventions spring from the combination of the work of many people. Edison did not create the lightbulb alone, nor did Al Gore invent the internet by himself.

In his new book, Group Genius, Keith Sawyer looks at the power of Group Genius, the impact of collaboration on creativity and innovation. Rather than rely on a single genius, we should be harnessing the power and knowledge of many people in our organizations. Through a number of interesting examples, Sawyer demonstrates how the power of collaboration increases the capability of the firm to generate more ideas and better ideas, and enhances the culture of innovation.

Sawyer starts off the book with a few characteristics of creative teams:

  1. Innovation emerges over time
  2. Successful collaborative teams practice deep listening
  3. Team members build on their collaborators' ideas
  4. The meaning of an idea becomes clear over time
  5. Reframing the problem or solving a different problem
  6. Recognizing that innovation is inefficient
  7. Innovation emerges from the bottom up
Although he presents these ideas early on, they don't receive enough exposition throughout the book. These concepts alone, however, are enough to chew on for quite some time.

Sawyer divides the book into three sections, looking at how teams collaborate and how corporations collaborate. Yes, I know that's two sections. The third section is a little less defined and really looks at how we as individuals think and the mental models we use which provide frameworks which can limit our thinking and creativity.

In the first section, on team collaboration, Sawyer demonstrates the power of improvisation as a method to improve problem solving and innovation. His argument is that too many rules and too much planning tend to choke out creativity and innovative problem solving. He provides several examples where groups were faced with significant challenges and had to improvise solutions on the spot. While improvisation is often inefficient, it can lead to better ideas and better results in some cases. Sawyer also describes "flow" - a concept that originates from research by Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is a heightened state of consciousness that occurs when:

  • People are working on tasks that match their skills
  • There's a clear goal
  • There's constant feedback as to progress and attainment of the goal
  • The person is free to fully engage in the task
Research shows that "flow" is essential to creativity. Sawyer moves on to describe a number of conditions that need to exist for a team to achieve flow, using examples from sports teams to improv to major corporations.

In the second section, the Collaborative Mind, Sawyer looks at successful innovators and people who were highly creative and seeks to determine how they got that way, and how "regular" people like you and me can become more creative. In this section there are a number of exercises to help you start reframing problems and step away from your usual perspectives and context.

In the third section of the book, Sawyer looks at using the concepts of collaboration and group genius within an organization - how to organize for improved collaboration and innovation, how to build collaborative webs and how to collaborate with customers. In this section he offers some very useful ideas and approaches to use within any team or organization.

Group Genius is an excellent book, because it combines theory with practice and practical guidelines. Too often, books about innovation and creativity are written from a purely academic viewpoint, with a lot of research and theory described, but not much information on how to put the information into practice, or from a very tactical perspective, suggesting a few tips or techniques or offering up some simple exercises. Sawyer does a good job of demonstrating the thinking behind his suggestions, but also presenting a number of actions that a team or corporation can take to become more innovative by tapping the collaborative genius of a team or the company. He uses a lot of examples, from improv actors to large corporations, but always within context. The section on the Collaborative Mind is interesting but really more focused on the individual and his or her creative capability, while the sections on team and organizational collaboration are focused on how your teams, groups and business units can harness the power of collaboration to achieve more creativity, better problem solving and generate better ideas.

Some books about creativity are read once and filed on the shelf for occasional reference. Group Genius is a book that will be so dog-eared and so heavily used you may need more than one copy for your own use, and a number of copies for your co-workers as well. This is a book that can be used by an individual, a team or a business unit, with relevance for all of them. This book is my first introduction to Keith Sawyer's work, and I look forward to reading his other books after reading this one. I highly recommend it to anyone who is searching for ways to improve the collaboration, creativity or innovative capability of a team or company.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 10:05 AM


Blogger Oopala said...


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Thank you, and best of luck.

Anthony Kuhn

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