Ever thought that the Wright Brothers invented the airplane? Or that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, James Watt invented the steam engine, John Logie Baird did likewise for television and Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin (all from Scotland, by the way, the land of genius)? Sir Isaac Newton invented the calculus. Right! C.S. Lewis wrote the Chronicles of Narnia entirely from the spark of genius from within? Well, after reading this book you will see that these various stories of geniuses inventing things single-handedly, while warding off the depredations of jealous and rival others, are all myths, perpetuated by the believers in the importance of the individual and the notion that creativity can reside only within the single person.
This book makes a strong case for the view that inventions are, more likely than not, the outcome of collaboration or at least the use by individuals of information provided by a web of informants, friends, rivals, students, writers and a further miscellany of people, who provide the wherewithal that the "inventor" can use at the right time and the right place.
This book fulfils three purposes. The first is that it provides a free flowing and exciting account of how we think about the process of creativity. We can understand that how people produce the ideas and actions that lead to great works of art, scientific breakthroughs and the technology that we have all become so dependent upon in everyday living , have progressed from attempts to understand the thought processes of the lone genius to the realisation that creativity stems from teams of co-workers and collaborative webs of participants. As someone whose early research was concerned with the associative processes underlying creativity within the individual and who later worked through an understanding of the dynamics of group interaction to see the potential of collaboration, I can vouch that this book provides a good primer of work in the area and it does so with flair and humour.
The second is that it gives, in Part 2, a set of puzzles and tasks that can be used by individuals, but more importantly groups and organizations, to experience the insight that alerts them to the possibility of creative collaboration and which can also enhance that creativity. It is a primer and also a training manual.
The third benefit of reading this book is that it provides a series of case studies of successful modern companies that have benefited society through creative collaboration and many organizations, large and small, can take courage from these stories and consider breaking out of their current structures and practices and try the new.
A central premise of the book is that creativity and problem solving are dependent upon the utilisation of knowledge, distributed most effectively across many people and not only resident within an individual. This has always been the premise upon which the idea that distributed knowledge should be superior to individual knowledge. The problem until recently has been that the barriers to the sharing of knowledge have been difficult to overcome and groups of people share more than knowledge; they share inhibitions and past experiences which prevent the utilisation of knowledge that comes from other people. This book, like several others that have been recently published, is based upon the notion that with the internet and the development of network theory, the sharing and utilisation of knowledge have become more democratic and practical.
Sawyer looks at the literature on group problem solving and creativity in this light, and looks at what is emerging in work on webs of collaboration and networks of associations. There are many thoughts on how the utilisation of networks can facilitate thinking and problem solving and chapters 8 and 9 repay close attention and are rewarding.
As a social psychologist, however,one can take a more critical position. While Sawyer does acknowledge that there are lots of conditions that will produce quite the opposite state of affairs, he does not give this material much room. Individuals in many settings are far superior to groups in the quality of thinking that they produce. One can add countless examples of studies where it can be demonstrated that, in fact, groups are "dangerous to your mental health". Sawyer's book is one of several which have appeared recently with the same message. It is, however, more accessible than James Surowiecki's "The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many are Smarter than the Few", and more balanced in its presentation of contrary evidence than Howe's "Crowdsourcing: How the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business". It is as optimistic as Sunstein's "Infotopia: How many minds produce knowledge" and one should not perhaps "rain on the parade" too liberally. But it would be foolish to take the contents of this book and apply the nostrums will-nilly to the all the tasks all organizations have to face. Like most insights which are used to generate formulae for practice, in this book, as in many others written today,one has to add "it depends" as a limiting statement after most observations and inferences.
Sawyer does add another important ingredient which does differentiate the book from these others,however, a set of core ideas concerned with the creative process that can be simply stated here and which can give a foretaste for the book. The first set of concepts stems from the idea of "flow", the notion that, when we are engaged in a task which entirely occupies our talents and we are concentrating on achieving our goal, we can attain a new state of consciousness where past, present and future seem to merge into one and we are almost outside of the environment. Sawyer applies this idea of individual consciousness to the experience we can attain within a successful operating group.
"Flow" in a group can be created when there at least five conditions in existence simultaneously. The group must have a clear goal, in the case of the dynamic tertiary education organization, a goal of solving specific problems within that environment. The group members must engage with each other completely, that is they demonstrate "close listening" where members are totally open to the ideas and suggestions of others, with no preconceptions. They are also concentrating only on the task, excluding intruding and distracting tasks and messages. They are given autonomy to address the task and have accepted that responsibility, and they subsume their own egos to the group, so that no one individual has individual leadership responsibility. If these conditions can be achieved, then the group is in a state of readiness to address the problems innovatively and to achieve novel solutions of high quality.
Of course, the achievement of this state of group consciousness is not easy and cannot be guaranteed, even if many of the conditions are in place. The group members need themselves to be skilled and knowledgeable, able to contribute and respond to others. But many people can report having experienced this state. Sawyer, while a psychologist, really formulated his ideas from his experience as a jazz musician, where collaboration and improvisation by the band members must predate the demonstration to the audience of a successful performance. If you are a musician or have played group sports, then you may well have experienced "flow" at some level, even if it has not been as an elite. The metaphor of music collaboration and sport makes an interesting comparison with the metaphor of the organisation as a military team prevalent today.
Setting aside any provisos, however, in the spirit of engaging creatively with an issue or problem, this book should be studied in the context in which it is written, to be seen as a creative solution to a pervasive issue in organisational behaviour. As a "Beginner's Guide" to the tribulations of group and organisational problem solving, this book on Group Genius, is certainly worth reading and studying. For an organization which has several teams, sometimes with goals and modes of operation which appear different, but which are, however, all seeking to achieve an overall goal within a particularly constrained market, this would be a good start to achieve a consensus that is, at the same time and perhaps somewhat paradoxically, creative.
Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce KnowledgeThe Wisdom of CrowdsCrowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business