Excerpt from Group Genius

When the first version of Group Genius was published in 2007, it was pretty radical to claim that collaboration drives innovation. The accepted wisdom was that brilliant people came up with creative ideas all by themselves. Business leaders competed to hire the most creative professionals—offering free lunch, day care, and ping pong tables. They were convinced that they needed special geniuses to generate innovation. Most creativity advice books told people how to come up with better ideas.

Now, ten years later, the evidence for the creative power of collaboration is overwhelming. In 2015, a majority of executives say more collaboration leads to greater profits. In 2016, the Harvard Business Review reported that employee collaboration time was way up in the last two decades—from 50 percent to as much as 80 percent. In 2016, the New York Times wrote that “teams are now the fundamental unit of organization.” Today everyone agrees that collaboration is the key to innovation.

But there’s a problem: It turns out that it’s hard to collaborate successfully. Brainstorming is a good example: Numerous studies have shown that this popular technique is usually a waste of time. There’s so much ineffective collaboration and bad teamwork that there’s been a backlash. Susan Cain’s bestseller Quiet argues that when people spend time alone, they’re more effective, more creative, and more successful. She calls the increasing emphasis on teamwork “The New Groupthink.” The truth is that, despite the proliferation of advice in the business press, many companies don’t know how to foster creative collaboration.

Improvised innovation is more likely to work when a group experiences group flow — the group equivalent of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s famous “flow” state, when we perform at our peak and lose track of time.

Here’s where the research comes in. My research has shown that only certain kinds of collaboration work in the real world—improvisations that are guided and planned, but in a way that doesn’t kill the power of improvisation to generate unexpected insights. Fortunately, today’s research tells us how. For example, I show that improvised innovation is more likely to work when a group experiences group flow — the group equivalent of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s famous “flow” state, when we perform at our peak and lose track of time. Most teams never experience group flow; knowing the research will help you attain this peak experience. And I show how to build brainstorming groups that realize their full creative potential.

Today’s Internet tools make collaboration easier than ever: Slack, Google Plus+, WebEx, Basecamp…the list grows longer every month. Critical business functions have migrated into the cloud, allowing everyone to work together more efficiently and access the same data. Social media like Facebook, Instagram, Vine, and Pinterest expand our social networks and bring us together in groups that include millions. More than ever before, we need to understand how to harness these tools to foster creative collaboration.

While doing research for this second edition, I bought so many books about collaboration that I had to buy another bookshelf. But while reading these books, I discovered that some of the most exciting research on group creativity goes unnoticed. That’s why I’m writing this second edition—to share the surprising insights of the science of collaboration. In this new edition, I bring together research on face-to-face collaboration, everyday conversation, and even jazz, theater, and basketball teams, as well as the latest science of Internet-based collaboration. This research shows how we can use social media and business productivity apps to bring us together in ways that build on our deeply human need for collaboration.

In the early days of technology, computers isolated us in small rooms, with computer screens reflected in our faces. Today’s technologies are aligned with our social nature. They help us become more connected, more human.

Psychologists are taught to study the individual mind — indirectly, through ingenious experiments, or directly, using new technologies to photograph the brain in action. When I began to study creativity, I took the same approach, investigating what happened in the mind when people were being creative. I interviewed jazz musicians, and I developed theories to explain improvisation.

But I quickly became disappointed with this focus on the individual. My years of playing piano in jazz ensembles convinced me that what happened in any one person’s mind could never explain what made one night’s performance shine and another a dud. At any second during a performance, an almost invisible musical exchange could take the piece in a new direction; later, no one could remember who was responsible for what. In jazz, the group has the ideas, not the individual musicians.

In the business world, I’d seen many innovations emerge from a group’s genius. In the early 1980s, at my first job after college, I designed video games for Atari. Each game benefited from constant collaboration; I talked to other game designers every day, and we held frequent brainstorming sessions to generate new game ideas. I worked with graphic designers who created the animation sequences that made the characters run, hop, and throw, and musicians who composed those memorable little beeps and boops. And in my next job, while advising Citibank on innovative new technologies, I learned about how John Reed, the CEO, put together a team of key executives to turn the cash machine and the credit card into everyday realities.

The most radical breakthroughs — including television, the airplane, e-mail, and even the board game Monopoly — emerge from a collaborative web that can’t be contained within any one company’s walls.

Because of these experiences in jazz and business, soon after I started graduate school I realized that the psychology of the individual mind couldn’t explain group genius. So I began to search for an alternative approach to studying creativity. That’s when I discovered “interaction analysis,” a research tool that allows scientists to chart the minute-to-minute interactions that make collaboration so powerful. Applying this method to improvisational theater dialogues revealed how unexpected insights emerge from the group. And when I applied the method to everyday conversations, business meetings, and brainstorming sessions, I began to learn how collaboration drives innovation.

In recent years, I took this new perspective on collaboration and used it to better understand today’s networked economy—for example, analyzing the way new ideas such as Google Earth’s mash-ups emerged from Google’s collaborative, improvisational culture, or how collaboration software like Salesforce’s Chatter and Microsoft’s Volometrix bring people together electronically, and dramatically expand opportunities for collaboration. Everything I observed told me that each business success was based on collaboration—not only in trendy Silicon Valley companies such as the IDEO design firm or Apple Computer, but also in manufacturing firms such as 3M and W. L. Gore, pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly and GlaxoSmithKline, personal product firms like Procter & Gamble, and at highly technical research labs. The more I observed creativity in action the more I realized that the most radical breakthroughs—including television, the airplane, e-mail, and even the board game Monopoly—emerged from a collaborative web that can’t be contained within any one company’s walls.

Along the way, I collected stories of significant innovations—both historical, such as the airplane and the telegraph, and contemporary, such as e-mail and the mountain bike. And I made a fascinating discovery: Even though these products didn’t result from a single conversation, their historical emergence followed the same process as an improvised conversation—with small sparks gathering together over time, multiple dead ends, and the reinterpretation of previous ideas.

These innovations all result from an invisible collaborative web, and in this book I draw on my research—including the lessons of improv theater—and the work of other social scientists to make this collaborative web visible. I begin in Part 1 by taking you on a journey through amazing examples of creative collaboration shown by earthquake and hurricane disaster response networks, military teams, and pickup basketball games. I use these to show that the most effective collaborations are improvisational—just like the performances of the Chicago group iO that appeared on CNN’s special.

By the end of Part 1, I hope to have convinced you of the creative power of collaboration. But you still might wonder: Isn’t the individual mind the ultimate source of creativity? Doesn’t each creative spark come from one person? In fact, researchers have discovered that the mind itself is filled with a kind of internal collaboration, that even the insights that emerge when you’re completely alone can be traced back to previous collaborations.

In Part 2, I share the results of exciting new research on the collaborative nature of the mind. You’ll have fun doing creativity games yourself—the same ones that top researchers use in their laboratories, games that tap into the brain processes that drive creative insight. I’ll walk you through some classic “insight problems,” those that require an “Aha!” experience to be solved. And you’ll see that even though insight often feels like a solitary, private event, its roots are in collaboration.

When Time magazine interviewed me about creativity, I explained the key lesson of this research: There’s no magic or mystery to the flash of insight. Indeed, using clever research designs, scientists have demonstrated how moments of insight can be traced back to previous dedication, hard work, and collaboration. And they’ve shown how we all can tap into the creative power of collaboration to make our own insights more frequent and more successful.

In Part 3, I move into the real world of earth-shattering innovation. I argue that most of what we’ve heard about famous inventions is wrong because it’s based on the myth of the lone genius. I’ll reveal the real stories behind famous inventions: the telegraph (not invented by Samuel Morse), the light bulb (not invented by Thomas Edison), and the airplane (not invented by the Wright brothers). Forget the myths about historical inventors; the truth is always a story of group genius. Today’s innovations emerge from ever more complex organizations and many interacting teams.

Part 3 takes you inside some of today’s most innovative companies and shows that they succeed by designing their organizations to maximize collaboration. I’ll tell stories about innovative computer companies, such as Cisco and Apple; Web-based companies, such as YouTube and eBay; retailers, such as Whole Foods and Procter & Gamble; and manufacturers, such as Toyota and 3M. I end the book with a final chapter that shows how social media is leading us into a new world of collaboration, with even greater potential to transform lives and drive innovation.

Innovation is what drives today’s economy, and our hopes for the future—as individuals and organizations—lie in finding creative solutions to pressing problems. My goal in this book is to reveal the unique power of collaboration to generate innovation. And it’s my hope that you’ll use these new insights about group genius to create more effective collaborations in your own life—at work, at home, and in your community.