Author, Consultant, Executive Coach - Helping people and organizations grow into desired results

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Book Review: "Group Genius" by Keith Sawyer

In Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, Keith Sawyer has woven together a range of disparate threads of thought into an enjoyable and practical book on the creative process. He’s debunked several myths regarding creativity and synthesized ideas from several different worlds in a way that left me thinking, “Yes, I recognize everything you’re saying and I’ve seen much of this before, but never so well organized and neatly presented in one place.”

The book has received many reviews since its publication last year and a two awards as well so I won’t offer an overview. Instead I’d like to draw out one thread in particular that informs the majority of Sawyer’s book: the idea of improvisation.

First, some background. For some years I’ve been involved with the Applied Improvisation Network (AIN), whose aim is to “spread the transforming power of improvisation.” The AIN is a collaborative “community of practitioners and clients who value the use of improvisation skills in organizations to improve relationships, increase authenticity, promote spontaneity, foster trust and build communities of practice.”

Improv enthusiasts have every reason to be ecstatic over Sawyer’s book, since it echoes what they have been saying for years and lends to their arguments the triple weight of his academic research (professor of psychology and education at Washington University in St. Louis, he took his Ph.D. in psychology studying creativity with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, originator of the concept of “Flow”) his practical business savvy (following his computer science degree at MIT he designed video games for Atari and then did management consulting on innovative technologies with Kenan Systems) and his artistic flair (he is himself an improviser as a jazz pianist for over 30 years, spending several of those years playing piano with Chicago improv theatre groups).

In contrast to the traditional notion of the “lone genius” being responsible for great creative breakthroughs, Sawyer’s thesis is that all creativity is actually collaborative and that improvisation is the ideal format for getting the creative juices flowing. To understand and promote successful collaboration, it pays to focus on the moment-to-moment interactional dynamics. Innovation emerges over time as team members practice deep listening, build on each others’ ideas, allow for emergent meaning creation, create room for surprising (and unanticipated) questions and allow the process the time and space it requires to unfold according to its own pace and flow.

In an organizational setting there is an clear need for structure and strategic planning. Yet he gives real-world examples to show that improvisation is often more responsive and effective than heavily scripted approaches. So what is the best balance of planning and improvisation? The answer (expanding on the concept coined by his former supervisor Csikszentmihalyi) is what he’s termed a state of Group Flow, enabled by 10 key conditions that he describes in the book.

OK this posting is a long one and I want to discuss more thoughts prompted by this book, so I’m going to extend this review over a few posts…and why not. For now it’s good night from Melbourne.

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