Group Genius

The Creative Power of Collaboration


By Keith Sawyer

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“A fascinating account of human experience at its best.” — Mihá Csízentmihái, author of Flow

Creativity has long been thought to be an individual gift, best pursued alone; schools, organizations, and whole industries are built on this idea. But what if the most common beliefs about how creativity works are wrong? Group Genius tears down some of the most popular myths about creativity, revealing that creativity is always collaborative — even when you’re alone. Sharing the results of his own acclaimed research on jazz groups, theater ensembles, and conversation analysis, Keith Sawyer shows us how to be more creative in collaborative group settings, how to change organizational dynamics for the better, and how to tap into our own reserves of creativity.


Introduction Beyond the Lone Genius

When CNN asked me to appear on a one-hour special about "genius" hosted by Sanjay Gupta, MD, the invitation presented a challenge: how to condense into a ten-minute segment my broad expertise and how to choose material that would be especially interesting to viewers. I had ten years of business experience as a management consultant, advising large companies like Citibank and US West on innovation. I'd spent fifteen years studying the science of creativity, starting with my PhD in psychology at the University of Chicago. And through it all, I'd continued playing jazz piano just as I had back in high school and college.

But it didn't take me long to decide what to present on CNN—I took their crew to Chicago to film the onstage collaborations of iO, the influential improvisational theater that launched Mike Myers, Tina Fey, and Jordan Peele. The reason? Both my research and my real-world experience had led me to the same conclusion: collaboration is the secret to breakthrough creativity. I'd just finished a ten-year study of how Chicago actors improvise dialogue on stage, and I'd discovered that group improv was the purest form of collaboration. The rest of the CNN special was about individual genius—with segments on brain scanning and child prodigies—but when it came to creativity, the show focused on what I call "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 said more collaboration leads to greater profits. In 2016, the Harvard Business Review reported that employee collaboration time has gone way up in the past two decades, with many employees now spending as much as 80 percent of their time in collaborative activities. 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.

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 to foster that kind of teamwork. 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 sites, including 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 promote creative collaboration.

While doing research for this second edition, I bought so many new books about collaboration that I had to buy another bookshelf. But in spite of all this attention, some of the most exciting research on group creativity goes unnoticed, and in this second edition I want to share the surprising insights of this field. 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. In the early days of technology, computers isolated us in small offices and cubicles where we sat with computer screens reflected in our faces. Today's technologies are aligned with our social nature. They help us become more connected and more human. This book shows how we can use social media and business apps to bring us together in ways that build on our deeply human need to work productively with others.

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.

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 have emerged from a collaborative, improvisational culture, and how collaboration software such as Salesforce's Chatter and Microsoft's Volo-Metrix brings people together electronically, dramatically expanding 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, 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 highly technical research labs. The more I observed creativity in action, the more I realized that the most radical breakthroughs—including television, the airplane, email, 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 email 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 One 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 One, 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 Two, 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 Three, 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 Three 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.




The Power of Collaboration

On December 17, 1903, on a bitterly cold windswept beach in North Carolina, five men from the local lifeguard station stood in the sand and watched as Orville Wright took off in his handmade flyer into a twenty-seven-mile-per-hour wind. The twelve-horsepower engine kept him aloft for twelve seconds; he landed 100 feet away from the launch point. Orville and his brother, Wilbur, then took turns in making three more flights, the longest lasting fifty-nine seconds and covering 852 feet. No members of the press witnessed the event; Orville himself mounted his camera on a tripod and asked one of the lifeguards to snap the shutter. The resulting picture is the most famous image of innovation ever taken: the aircraft has just left its track and is 2 feet aloft; Wilbur, standing just off the wing, is leaning back as if astonished at their amazing feat.

How did these two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, beat leading scientists, who had fortunes in funding, and win the international race to build the first airplane? The Wrights drew on the power of collaboration: they allowed their innovation to unfold from constant conversation and side-by-side work. Wilbur Wright later explained it this way: "From the time we were little children my brother Orville and myself lived together, played together, worked together and, in fact, thought together. We usually owned all of our toys in common, talked over our thoughts and aspirations so that nearly everything that was done in our lives has been the result of conversations, suggestions and discussions between us."

The Wrights kept detailed diaries of their transformative collaboration. These diaries show that the Wrights didn't experience a single moment of insight; rather, their collaboration resulted in a string of successive ideas, each spark lighting the next. In 1900, after four years of closely studying everything written on bird flight and glider designs, they took their first trip down to Kitty Hawk. After each practice flight, they modified the glider, and by the end of that first season, they had flown it safely, with several flights of more than 300 feet.

On their second trip to North Carolina, in 1901, they realized that the wings weren't providing enough lift to carry the motor the craft would eventually need. Back in Dayton for the winter, they built a wind tunnel that was 6 feet long and, using a powerful fan hooked up to a gasoline engine, tested two hundred wing designs.

On their third trip to Kitty Hawk, in 1902, they were getting so good at flying their glider that they routinely made fifty or more flights each day. But they discovered an unexpected problem, known as "adverse yaw": when warping the wings to steer right or left, the glider lost control and leaned over too far, crashing the wing's tip into the ground (the Wrights called it "well digging"). Before they could fly safely, this problem had to be fixed. First, they added a vertical tail; this helped a bit, but the glider still crashed unpredictably. One day, Orville told Wilbur about a new idea: modify the vertical tail so that it could be moved by the operator. Wilbur responded by suggesting that the new cable required to control the tail be tied into the wing-warping mechanism so that the operator could work both controls at once. This collaborative insight proved to be the final piece of the puzzle: by combining wing warping and a movable tail, they had mastered controlled gliding. Now they were ready for powered flight.

In 1903, they designed and built their own gasoline engine and propellers, and then scaled up the aircraft to support the extra weight. They refined the design further by adding a second vertical tail for better control. They arrived in North Carolina for the fourth time in September and worked through October and November fixing tiny problems that kept cropping up. Everything finally came together on that cold day in late December.

Invisible Collaboration

The Wright brothers lived together, ate together, and discussed their project every day. Their collaboration was visible to everyone around them, and it speaks from every page of their journals. But many creative collaborations are almost invisible—and it's these largely unseen and undocumented collaborations that hold the secrets of group genius.

The mountain bike provides a perfect example of what I call "invisible collaboration." No one knows exactly when and where that innovation originated, but it probably dates to the early 1970s in Marin County, California. In the early 1970s, road cycling was making a comeback in America, and Marin County was a cycling hotbed. In the off-season, some of these bicyclists started riding just for fun on the dirt trails of Mount Tamalpais, or Mount Tam, as locals call it, which rises 2,571 feet above San Francisco Bay. The roots and rocks would have trashed their expensive road-racing bikes, so they went to yard sales and scrounged up old balloon-tire bikes from the 1930s and 1940s. The fat tires provided a little extra give on the rough terrain. The cyclists found the rush hard to beat as they flew down the trail named Repack Road at breakneck speed, dropping 1,300 vertical feet in two miles, surrounded by oak and redwood pine trees.

But the old Schwinn frames weren't built for such rugged terrain, and many of them collapsed when they ran into an especially big rock. One trailside tree was dubbed "Vendetti's Face" after a local rider flew headfirst into the trunk. There were other problems, too. The old brakes, used constantly to control speed, would get so hot that the grease evaporated and left a trail of smoke behind each rider. Riders had to pack in new grease after almost every trip down the mountain (thus the trail name "Repack Road"). And because the old bikes didn't have shifters or gears, riding uphill was almost impossible.

On December 1, 1974, three riders from Cupertino, seventy-five miles to the south, showed up in Marin for an off-road race. They called themselves the Morrow Dirt Club. They were riding old balloon-tire bikes, but these machines were different: they'd been rigged up with shifters and multiple gears, and the handlebars were modified into today's familiar "longhorn" shape, providing better control. The Marin bikers had never seen anything like it before, and they quickly modified their own bikes with the new ideas. At about the same time, a third group of fat-tire riders had formed in Crested Butte, Colorado, a desirable location for scenic, rugged rides, such as the Pearl Pass road from Crested Butte to Aspen. A few years later, when five riders from Marin took their shifter-modified bikes to the Pearl Pass race, they not only left the local riders in the dust but also left behind their new ideas.

By the late 1970s, some of the more mechanically inclined riders were starting to make a living building custom mountain bikes, and business grew by word of mouth. When Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly launched the first mountain bike company in 1979, they sold handmade bikes costing $1,400. Even at that high price, buyers snatched them up. Within a few years, the big bike companies entered the business, and by 1986, mountain bike sales surpassed road bike sales. Ten years earlier, only a few hundred people had even heard of mountain biking; ten years later, in 1996, mountain biking was an Olympic sport.

The early riders in California and Colorado weren't trying to change biking forever and they weren't trying to start a new industry; they were just having fun. But unexpected events followed their initial innovations. The Morrow Dirt Club designed the gear-shifter and the new handlebars; the Marin County riders devised brakes that wouldn't burn out; and several riders independently designed custom-made frames that wouldn't break on the big bumps. After that, still others created manufacturing techniques and marketing strategies, and gradually they modified the bike to appeal to mainstream America. Soon, all of us—buyers, riders, and commuters—did the rest. The mountain bike was the result of a largely invisible long-term collaboration that stretched from Marin to Colorado.

Although the Wright brothers will always hold a special place in history, today's airplanes also unfolded through invisible collaboration. The Wrights' most significant idea, to steer using wing warping and a moving vertical tail, was soon replaced by other aviators with a better invention: the aileron, a separate surface on the trailing edge of the wing that pivoted up and down. By the beginning of World War I, most of the Wrights' ideas had been replaced by better technologies.

We're drawn to the image of the lone genius whose mystical moment of insight changes the world. But the lone genius is a myth; instead, it's group genius that generates breakthrough innovation. When we collaborate, creativity unfolds across people; the sparks fly faster, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Collaboration drives creativity because innovation always emerges from a series of sparks—never a single flash of insight. The Wright brothers had lots of small ideas, each critical to the success of the first powered flight. The mountain bike wasn't commercially viable until many distinct ideas came together. These two stories show how the genius of the group emerges through the sanding and polishing of raw innovation.

Every story of today's innovations follows the same unpredictable, wandering path. In this book, you'll hear about the hidden collaborations behind scientific discoveries like Darwin's theory of evolution and Einstein's e = mc2; literary creations like J. R. R. Tolkien's trilogy The Lord of the Rings and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land; and today's innovations that have changed our lives—the personal computer, email, and social networks like Twitter and Facebook. In this book, you'll learn the hidden backstories of these and other innovations—the untold stories of collaborative innovation. These stories will show you how to tap into the power of group genius.

Jazz Freddy

When scientists first began looking at creativity in the 1950s, they focused on the solitary creative person. Although this research provided important insights—for example, creative people are slightly above average in intelligence but aren't necessarily geniuses, and creative people are good at generating lots of ideas—by the early 1990s, those of us studying creativity had reached the limits of this approach. We were beginning to see that even the best creativity tests couldn't predict which children would become the most creative adults. Even the most enriched elementary school curricula seemed to have no significant impact on how creative students would be years later. My colleagues and I realized that we needed to find a new way to explain how innovation takes place and how to unleash each person's creative potential.

Psychologists are typically trained to focus on the individual, an approach firmly supported by our culture's belief that the solitary individual is the source of creativity. But to our surprise, beginning in the 1990s, our research began to point in the opposite direction. We began to see that innovations once believed to be the creation of a genius actually emerged from invisible collaborations, and that collaboration was responsible for famous creations throughout history.

Sigmund Freud is credited with creating psychoanalysis, but in fact these ideas emerged from a vast network of colleagues. The French impressionist style of painting associated with Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir emerged from a closely connected group of Parisian painters. Albert Einstein's contributions to modern physics were embedded in an international collaboration among many laboratories and teams. In fact, he didn't discover the famous formula e = mc2; it was already known. Einstein's attempt to prove the formula was mathematically flawed; the correct proof came later from another physicist. (Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize for a different project.) Steve Jobs didn't invent the PC or the smartphone, and Linus Torvalds didn't invent the Linux operating system. Just like today's software and business innovations, psychoanalysis, impressionism, and quantum physics emerged over many years of interactions, trial and error, and false starts—not in a single burst of insight.

As we moved beyond historical observation to the laboratory, to today's breakthrough technology innovations, and to the everyday world, a new science of creativity began to form. My contribution has been to map the architecture of collaboration in two uniquely creative groups: the improvising ensembles of jazz and theater. These are the purest form of group genius; their creative performances emerge from everyone's equal participation.

In 1992, early in my research, I began to hear about an improvisational theater group called Jazz Freddy, which was performing at the Live Bait Theater in Wrigleyville—an urban neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago named for its central feature, the Chicago Cubs' Wrigley Field. The ten-member cast of Jazz Freddy chose the name to emphasize their links with jazz—their improvisations were free-flowing and unpredictable. I'd heard that the Live Bait had been sold out for every Jazz Freddy performance—pretty good for a type of theater that was off most people's radar at that time.

What made Jazz Freddy unique? After all, Chicago was the birthplace of modern improv theater, the city where the Compass Players and the Second City Theater created improv in the 1950s. By the early 1960s, Chicago improv was nationally known; it has produced stars such as Bill Murray, Tina Fey, and Stephen Colbert, as well as the legendary television program Saturday Night Live, which revolutionized small-screen comedy.

Through the 1980s, Saturday Night Live kept going strong. But back in Chicago, the improv scene had fallen into a rut. The famous Second City Theater had stopped improvising on stage, preferring instead to stick with scripted sketch comedy. Improv was risky; scripts were better at drawing in the large paying audiences of tourists who basically just wanted to see Saturday Night Live, live. It was a well-known secret among Chicago actors that during the break the cast worked furiously to weave the audience suggestions into the scripted material they were developing for the next season's show. Second City was undeniably funny and successful, but it didn't have the exciting edge that early improv had enjoyed.

Jazz Freddy was bringing back the excitement by doing something more radical, more free-form than Second City's sketch comedy. Jazz Freddy's goal was riskier than anything that had been tried before: every night, they performed a fully improvised one-hour play in two acts, separated by an intermission.


  • "Sawyer ... shares the secrets [of creativity] in a book that's every bit as fun, insightful, and practical as you'd want a book on creativity to be."—Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick
  • "In this provocative book, Sawyer complexifies our thinking about creativity, innovation, and genius."—Howard Gardner, author of Five Minds for the Future
  • "Group Genius is a must-read for anyone who ... want[s] to make the most of [their] own creative capabilities."—Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class

On Sale
May 16, 2017
Page Count
368 pages
Basic Books

Keith Sawyer

About the Author

Dr. Keith Sawyer is the Morgan Distinguished Professor in Educational Innovations at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The author of fourteen books, including the most widely used college textbook on creativity research, and over eighty scientific articles, Sawyer lives in North Carolina.

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