When Sparks Fly: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: November 10th, 2013 by bobmorris

When SparksWhen Sparks Fly: Igniting Creativity in Groups
Dorothy Leonard-Barton and Walter C. Swap
Harvard Business Review Press (2005)

How to Activate the Maverick Synapses

Note: I read this book many years ago and then composed the review that follows. Books and articles continue to cite When Sparks Fly as a primary source for information and insights about the collaborative creativity. Check it out. Amazon now sells a paperbound edition for only $13.08. That’s not a bargain, that’s a steal.

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There are many books now available on the general subject of “creativity” but relatively few on the subject of “group creativity.” Leonard-Burton and Swap have selected an appropriate title for theirs. As they explain, if you create the appropriate physical and psychological environments for a group, talent can be detonated and creative “sparks” then “fly”…perhaps igniting a department, a division or even an entire organization. For whatever reasons, others do not share my high regard for this book. So be it. What I expected — and what it delivers — is a solid conceptual framework within which to generate and then sustain collegial creativity. If you’ve read Robert Fritz’s The Path of Least Resistance for Managers, you are already aware of his assertion that an organizational structure can be designed for success. Leonard-Burton and Swap agree with Fritz, not only that such a design is possible but also that it is imperative. Their book consists of six chapters:

o What Is Group Creativity?
o Creative Abrasion
o Generating Creative Options
o Converging on the Best Options
o Designing the Physical Environment
o Designing the Psychological Environment

These chapters are followed by several pages of Notes and a superb Bibliography. Their concluding thoughts reiterate that “creativity is a process — and can be encouraged and influenced….Thinking of creativity as a process removes, we hope, some of the mystery — and the temptation to step back from the challenge….Creativity, like learning, is not only a process but an attitude. An attitude that promotes creativity is a kind of alertness to innovation opportunities — a constant mental challenge to routine and openness to change…. Some individuals thrive on the challenge of constant change and improvement; others recoil from the implicit chaos….But it takes only a small spark to ignite a large fire. Let the sparks fly!”

I provide this brief excerpt for two reasons. First, it gives you at least some idea of how the authors think. Also and more importantly, their remarks imply some of the barriers to “group creativity” which must be overcome, if not eliminated: fears of being “wrong”, of embarrassment, of rejection, of seeming “dumb”, etc. As Leonard-Burton and Swap correctly suggest, it is as important to be alert to human sensitivities and vulnerabilities as it is to “innovation opportunities.” Without mutual respect, there can be no mutual trust. Without mutual trust, there can be no creative collaboration.

If you share my high regard for this book, you may wish to check out the works of other authors such as Guy Claxton (Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less), Edward de Bono (Six Thinking Hats), Doug Hall (Jump Start Your Brain), Michael Michalko (Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques), and Roger von Oech (A Kick in the Seat of the Pants: Using Your Explorer, Artist, Judge, and Warrior to Be More Creative and A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative).

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