Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Live from FEI 2013: Keith Sawyer on the Power of Collaboration

Who is your favorite genius?  Is it Charles Darwin, because he came up with the theory of natural selection?  Samuel Morse, whose code got people communicating?  Maybe it's Tolkien, who created one trilogy to rule them all.

Regardless of whom you chose, you may be surprised to learn that their vaunted works are actually the products of collaboration.  These "lone geniuses" got the credit, and they may also be the faces on the inventions, but research and history have shown again and again that the idea of a lone-genius is a mere myth.    For example, a look at Darwin's notebooks reveals that, while he did write up the theory of natural selection, it took him 14 years to come up with the theory, and he documented a whole load of collaborations.  For another example, though Tolkien was the writer of the Lord of the Rings series, he was part of a writing group that included a number of great writers, including the notable C.S. Lewis.

Indeed, as Keith Sawyer points out, the reality is that most innovations are the result of group genius and zig-zagging paths.  Each person makes a contribution (bottom up), and the whole ends up being greater than the sum of its parts.

Adapting the Principles of Improv to Organizations

One of Keith Sawyer's inspirations is his background in jazz and studying improv groups, and he pointed out that companies can benefit tremendously from using some of the principles of improv[1], such as the wildly successful company, W.L. Gore.  One of the reasons for Gore's success is that it offers "dabble time" (10%): do anything you want; you answer to no one.[2]

Another helpful principle is forced connections.  By establishing boundaries and asking people to fill in the space, people can make fascinating connections between disparate constructs that can inspire many innovations.  One possible way to facilitate this is to practice on the Remote Associates Test (RAT).

Myths and Realities

Keith Sawyer went through several myths about creativity (far more on this here), showing some important realities of which companies need to take note:

Myth---Reality
Flash of insight---Emergence over time
Straight path to success---Multiple dead ends
The lone genius---Small ideas from many people

To be successful in innovation, companies need a culture and structure that allows people's small ideas to bounce around and come together.  As such, networking and collaboration become key, and that's the power of group genius.


Orin's Asides

1) For even more on this, see my earlier post on Michelle James, as well as Alicia Arnold's post.
2) This seems a bit looser than Google's 20% Time, insofar as there seems to be more accountability with the Google time (though still far less than what one encounters in all but the most flexible organizations).  In any case, it is an opportunity to take risks, collaborate, network, and make progress (see work by Teresa Amabile).




Orin C. Davis is a positive psychology researcher and organizational consultant who focuses on enabling people to do and be their best.  His consulting work focuses on maximizing human capital and making workplaces great places to work, and his research focuses on self-actualization, flow, creativity, hypnosis, and mentoring. Dr. Davis is the principal investigator of the Quality of Life Laboratory and the Chief Science Officer of Self Spark. (@DrOrinDavis)

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