Saturday, August 2, 2008

Sawyer's Group Genius

Hot Book review by Rachel Wiatrowski:

Sawyer, R. K. (2007) Group genius: the creative power of collaboration. Basic Books: New York.

The heart of this book is Sawyer’s proposal that “collaboration is the secret to breakthrough creativity” (Sawyer, p. ix). In the introduction, with his background in psychology, Sawyer expresses his contradictions in the traditional focus on the individual, and through his research, he has found that true creativity and innovation only comes through the open sharing of information between groups of individuals. Sawyer’s background influenced his research of jazz musicians (where creation is based on improvisation) and business (including his work in game development at Atari), whereby he concluded, “the psychology of the individual couldn’t explain (his concept) of group genius” (Sawyer, p. x). Even stories of innovation that have traditionally been associated with a single individual or team, Sawyer discovered, truly emerged from “small sparks gathering together over time, multiple dead ends, and the reinterpretation of previous ideas” (Sawyer, p. xi).

The book is separated into three parts. Part I looks at various examples of collaboration, improvisation and creativity. By providing various examples, the author hopes to demonstrate the power of collaborative work. In Part 2, Sawyer provides the results of current research in creativity and collaboration, as well as some examples of the confusion between individual “Aha” moments and the steps of collaboration that lead up to the “Aha.” Then, in Part 3, the author takes on the concept of the “lone genius,” explaining away the individual’s rights to historical inventions, and how today’s successfully innovative companies are embracing the idea of creating an organization of collaboration.

There are a number of concepts presented by the author in this book that really sparked both insights and conversation with colleagues. The first of these is the seven characteristics that Sawyer identifies as key to the effectiveness of creative teams:
• Innovation emerges over time
• Successful collaborative teams practice deep listening
• Team members build on their collaborators’ ideas
• Only afterwards does the meaning of each idea become clear
• Surprising questions emerge
• Innovation is inefficient
• Innovation emerges from the bottom up
It is challenging to apply these characteristics to a business environment, where time is always short, and competition for resources between teams is high. True organizational collaboration means that both management and the individual must let go of preconceived notions for how to attain success. When true sharing of ideas is fostered, then real innovation (and for me, fulfilling creative work) can occur.

A second interesting concept presented by Sawyer is that of “group flow.” Building on Csikszentmihalyi’s work of flow, the idea of group flow means that instead of just an individual, a group of people working together is performing to the best of their collective ability. By looking at such varied groups as pick-up basketball teams, jazz musicians, and improv theater actors, the author presents ten conditions under which group flow can be attained:
• The group’s goal – it should provide focus, while being open enough for problem-solving
• Close listening – where group participants are able to focus on what is being said rather than formulating an appropriate response
• Complete concentration
• Being in control
• Blending egos
• Equal participation
• Familiarity – where each group member has an amount of shared knowledge or background to draw on
• Communication
• Moving it forward – knowing when to see opportunities in ideas and when to let them go
• The potential for failure

In Part 2, Sawyer presents the idea of small sparks, which are small moments of creativity that, when added together, can provide the larger picture for the “Aha” moment. This “collaboration over time” suggests that “great inventions emerge from a long sequence of small sparks; the first idea often isn’t all that good, but thanks to collaboration it later sparks another idea, or it’s reinterpreted in an unexpected way. Collaboration brings small sparks together to generate breakthrough innovation.” (Sawyer, p. 102)

I can see this when looking at my own product development experience, where employees who have been around longer in the industry often say, “every product comes back.” The ways that children like to play may evolve, but many of the themes remain the same.

In Part 3, the author looks at the innovation labs and successfully innovative companies today, and identifies ten secrets of collaborative organizations:
• Keep many irons in the fire – because not all of them will be good ones, so when there is lots more going on, there is more likely to be a good idea
• Create a department of surprise – that searches out the good ideas
• Build spaces for collaboration
• Allow time for ideas to emerge – work under pressure makes people work harder, but less creatively
• Manage the risks of improvisation
• Improvise at the edge of chaos – but avoid complete chaos, where productivity sharply decreases
• Manage knowledge for innovation – this is more than a database, but instead are procedures for good ideas to be spread successfully across an organization
• Build dense networks
• Ditch the organizational chart
• Measure the right things – not just R&D spending and the number of individual patents

Finally, Sawyer ends with a challenge beyond collaborative organizations to the idea of a “collaborative economy,” where he suggests modifications to the laws that effect the ability for people to be successfully creative through collaboration, including changes to copyright and patent laws, releasing employees from non-compete clauses, and “encouraging industry-wide standards” that enable a focus on innovation of a system rather than the creation of a new one.
In applying his ideas to not only the organization, but also to our society and how we interact and share ideas, the author proposes that we are thereby enable to become even more creative, and realize the potential growth and change for our world.