Introduction: Beyond the Lone Genius

In 2006 CNN asked me to appear on a one-hour special about “genius” hosted by Dr. Sanjay Gupta. The invitation presented a challenge: how to condense into a ten-minute segment my broad expertise and how to chose 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 U.S. West on innovation. I’d spent fifteen years studying the science of creativity, working toward my Ph.D. in cognitive 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 on-stage collaborations of iO, the influential improvisational theater that launched Mike Myers, Tina Fey, and the late Chris Farley. 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.”

Psychologists are taught to study the individual mind—indirectly, through ingenious experiments, or directly, using new technologies to take photos of 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 1980’s, at my first job after college, I designed videogames 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 CEO John Reed put together a team of key executives to turn the cash machine and the credit card into everyday realities.

Because of these experiences in both jazz and in 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 that new ideas like Google Earth’s mash-ups emerged from Google’s collaborative, improvisational culture, or how Cisco’s innovative network technology brought their employees 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 like the IDEO design firm or Apple Computer, but also in manufacturing firms like 3M and W. L. Gore, and at highly technical research labs. The more I observed creativity in action, the more I realized that the most radical breakthroughs—including the 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, like the airplane and the telegraph, and contemporary, like 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 1 by taking you on a journey through amazing examples of creative collaboration—from earthquake and hurricane disaster response networks, to military teams, to pick-up basketball games. I use these to show that the most effective collaborations are improvisational—just like the work of the Chicago group iO that appeared on CNN’s 2006 special.

But 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. For example, studies of brainstorming have shown that in most cases this popular technique is a waste of time. The truth is that, despite the proliferation of advice in the business press, many companies don’t know how to foster creative collaboration. 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. And I show how to build brainstorming groups that realize their full creative potential.

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 a single person? In fact, researchers have discovered that the mind itself is filled with a kind of internal collaboration, and that even those 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 in 2006, I gave them 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 all of us 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 like 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. And today’s innovations emerge from ever more complex organizations and many interacting teams. I’ll show you how group genius creates today’s cutting-edge products, including Motorola’s Razr phone, Pringle’s Prints, and the Linux operating system.

Part 3 takes you inside some of today’s most innovative companies, and shows that they succeed by designing their organizations to maximize group genius. I’ll tell stories about innovative computer companies like Cisco and Apple, Internet companies like YouTube and eBay, retailers like Whole Foods and Proctor & Gamble, and manufacturers like Toyota and 3M.

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.