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Book Review-Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration

If you look behind the curtains of any genius you’ll usually find hidden ways that they were propelled forward by previous discoveries or through their work with others to create something that they couldn’t have thought of on their own. Whether it’s the remarkable advances of the renaissance kicked off by the Medici family bringing together great minds (See The Innovator’s DNA for more) or the “individual contributions” of the folks (Mozart, Freud, Woolf, and Gandhi) that Howard Gardner discusses in his book Extraordinary Minds, or the Wizard of Menlo Park – Thomas Edison – and his surrounding himself with experts in Gas lighting (see my review of Find Your Courage for more on Edison). Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration seeks to debunk the standard myth of a solitary inventor and a flash of insight.



As I mentioned in my review of the book Collaboration, I sometimes tease audiences by defining collaboration as “to conspire with the enemy.” Collaboration is, however, more frequently working together toward a common goal. This gets muddy when we start to speak of creativity because at some level the common goal is something of a platitude, for instance “Create something amazing.” (See my post on the Nine Keys to SharePoint Success and my review of The Fifth Discipline for more about platitudes) But if you get more specific you unnecessarily prevent innovation.

The other half of collaboration is “working together.” That is that you are sharing your productive and creative space with another human who can build upon what you’re adding to the endeavor. As I mentioned in my review of The Rise of Superman, I took an improv comedy course with Michael Malone and was taught that in improv comedy you do “Yes and…” with the other performers. That is: you build on the line that they’re going down – rather than blocking their path. This is at the heart of collaboration – being additive to one another’s works.

Collaboration goes wrong when the members of the “team” are competing with one another and posturing rather than focusing on adding to the ideas and building each other up. (See Collaborative Intelligence for more about how teams collaborate effectively together – and how they don’t.)

Put Out the Fire

Sparks and Flashes

In my world with my wife, Terri, I can say that I’ve seen how we can work together to create something powerful. Many times we’ve started a conversation about a problem and have built layers and layers on each other’s thoughts until we came up with a solution neither of us would have come up with on our own.

For instance, our Child Safety cards are the result of a conversation about how sad it is that parents don’t interact with their children when they’re in the hospital. Parents will be on their phones and the children would be watching TV or playing video games. We talked about how families used to play games together and how it helped them talk. We considered the possibility of games that could be in a hospital environment and talked about a standard set of playing cards.

As we explorer the idea we realized that dice were problematic in hospitals because they’re a choking hazard but more importantly because they roll on the floor and the floors in hospitals – despite best intentions, are always germy. That led to adding the dice replacement feature to the cards. This allows the cards to be used as if they were dice and makes them valuable for use when the families want to play something other than card games.

The final component emerged as we talked about how some of the children were in the hospital for stupid things that their parents just didn’t know. Whether it was the danger of magnets or button batteries – or something like the importance of a helmet when riding a bike some of the children didn’t have to get hurt. That ultimately led us to adding American Academy of Pediatrics and Centers for Disease Control inspired sayings to the cards. The genius of the cards wasn’t one single moment of insight – one flash of brilliance – but instead it was a series of sparks that we built one on the other until we had the end product.

That’s fine for our little product but does it work the same way with more commercially successful products as well? I suppose that depends on what you call commercially successful. However, consider that Monopoly wasn’t the genius of a radiator repairman named Charles Darrow who sold the patent to Parker Brothers in 1934. Instead it evolved from a game designed to teach the ideas of Henry George who felt like rents robbed the working man of his wages and contributed to poverty.

The game itself was created with a great number of improvisations and variations over more than 50 years through Quakers, fraternity boys, and others. The game we know today didn’t arrive as one flash of insight but instead evolved over time.

Monopoly isn’t an isolated example either. 3M’s introduction of the Post-It Note was the result of a failure to make a super-adhesive glue. The romanticized version of the story has the inventor immediately finding the new use for the failed adhesive. However, it was 1968 when Spencer Silver was trying to create his adhesive and not until 1974 when Art Fry discovered the use of keeping slips of paper in his hymn book. It wasn’t until 1980 when the product was successfully test marketed with the Post-it name we know today. It wasn’t one flash of insight that created the discovery but rather the collaboration of two unlikely men and an organization willing to test market the product twice.

Progressive Innovations

Few would argue against the idea that the Wright brothers were inventive in their quest to develop the airplane. They beat out many impressive competitors to create the first controlled flight. However, their insight didn’t come in a flash either. They’re well known for having created wind tunnels in their shop in Dayton, OH to study the effects of different wing shapes on the ability to generate lift.

Until they created an airplane that could fly they didn’t understand the need to control its flight direction. The problems encountered once they had solved the lift problem weren’t obvious until they had been there. As a result, they had to pile on innovation after innovation to create a workable aircraft. They ultimately developed the idea of wing warping to allow the pilot to control the direction of the aircraft. They were the quintessential group genius – collaborating every day of their lives.

The Wright brothers did, however, almost kill the airplane industry and certainly set it back years by steadfastly holding on to their patents and blocking others from playing in the market.

Walt Disney may have been the front runner in the Disney family but he was supported both by his brother and by a group of talented artists and musicians as well. Disney’s story isn’t a rosy one. If you’re willing to hear the whole story you’ll hear about the bankruptcies, the times that he was cheated, and the times when his workers revolted. However, respite this Walt was by all accounts an amazing innovator. He created the first full length animated film. However, what’s lost in this is that he created shorts well before he created feature length films. He tried nearly everything he did on a small scale before making it larger. When technologies didn’t exist to do what he needed done, he and his team created them. They created the multiplane camera to be able to create films more quickly.

For Walt his learnings from one thing led to the next. He learned, adapted, and continued on. It’s this that is at the heart of group genius. We learn from one another and we move faster because what we’re creating together creates more capability for all of us.

We’ve all heard of compounding interest. That is how compounding interest creates a powerful effect. Even a return of 12% per year doubles money every 6 years. Building in the ideas of others and leveraging their knowledge allows you to create new ideas quicker.

To Get More Wins, Get More Losses

It’s really simple. Most people want more wins. If you win half the time and you want more wins, then accept more losses. Get up to the plate and try more often. All other things being equal if you get more losses then you’ll get more wins. If you want to produce something spectacular, then produce a lot. Darwin’s theory of evolution wasn’t the only thing that he ever published – it’s the only thing you’ve ever heard of his that was published. This is an example of “What You See Is All There Is” (WYSIATI) thinking. (You can see more about WYSIATI in Incognito and Thinking: Fast, and Slow.)

With the possible notable exception of Ansel Adams, every photographer who has created the world’s most memorable photos has taken a lot of photos. We all get better by trying and failing. We not only get more wins because we get better – we get more wins because we simply try more often.

Seven Characteristics

Keith Sawyer believes there are seven characteristics of effective creative teams:

  1. Innovation Emerges over Time – No one person creates innovation.
  2. Successful Collaborative Teams Practice Deep Listening – Knowing where people are going takes the effort of listening and the results is a cohesive group.
  3. Team Members Build on Their Collaborators’ Ideas — New ideas come by following the trails that others lay down. Effective teams go where they are led collectively.
  4. Only Afterwards Does the Meaning of Each Idea Become Clear – Only when you put all the ideas together is their value realized.
  5. Surprising Questions Emerge – When different ways of viewing problems come together new perspectives are possible – and they lead to new questions.
  6. Innovation Is Inefficient – Whatever can be said to minimize the power of optimization the result is efficiency. Innovation is messy and filled with starts and stops.
  7. Innovation Emerges from the Bottom Up – You can’t plan your way to innovation – you have to feel it out.

The Space Between

In the end, group genius emerges from the space between disciplines and people. Group genius is the result of two people stepping into the gap between them and finding new truths and new opportunities for connection. Maybe one day we’ll eliminate all the gaps and we’ll all form one very large and very powerful Group Genius. It’s worth learning what you can do to become a part of it.

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