Group Genius: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: June 21st, 2011 by bobmorris

Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration
Keith Sawyer
Basic Books (2008)

Throughout human history, what Keith Sawyer characterizes as “collaborative genius” has made significant contributions in ways and to an extent few (if any) individuals have. In fact, the more I think about all this, the more I appreciate the meaning and significance of Bernard Chartres’ observation (incorrectly attributed to Isaac Newton) that “We are like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants.” Here is a brief excerpt which correctly indicates one of Keith Sawyer’s core concepts: “In both an improv group and a successful work team, the members play off one another, each person’s contributions providing the spark for the next. Together, the improvisational team creates a novel emergent product, one that’s more responsive to the changing environment and [key point] better than what anyone could have developed alone. Improvisational teams are the building blocks of innovative organizations, and organizations that can successfully build improvisational teams will be more likely to innovate effectively.”

One of Sawyer’s most valuable insights, examined with both rigor and eloquence, is that people who are steadfastly convinced that they are not “creative” can nonetheless work effectively with others to generate (eventually) profoundly innovative ideas. There are some “ifs,” of course. First, senior managers must provide full support (including sufficient resources, especially time) of a collaborative team. Next, they must be patient rather than committing the common mistake of “ripping out a seedling to see how well it’s growing.” Also, they must understand – really understand – the meaning and especially the implications of the aforementioned seven key characteristics of effective creative teams. Finally, they must recognize that each “failure” (however defined) is a unique learning opportunity for them as well as for team members.



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