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Keith Sawyer's latest book takes aim at the 'myth of the lone genius', the idea that creativity is essentially about flashes of individual brilliance. This is hardly a new idea -- both the 'bolt from the blue' and the individualistic account have been called into question before -- but Sawyer is after something bigger. He wants to convince us that new ideas are always the result of social interaction, that 'even the insights that emerge when you're completely alone can be traced back to previous collaborations'. Essentially written for the management market -- creativity rapidly turns into 'innovation' -- this is a readable work of popular psychology that rounds up and summarizes a welter of real-life and laboratory evidence on the social side of human ingenuity. Sawyer's colorful background as jazz pianist, video games designer, industry consultant and academic psychologist provides rich pickings. Jazz and theatrical improvisation make an appearance alongside the origins of the Monopoly board game in Quaker anti-capitalism and decision-making in a Brazilian manufacturing firm where employees read the accounts and determine strategy.
The book is slightly strangely organized, the three sections dealing with teamwork, thinking and organizations. Some interesting links are forged across the different topics (conversation turns out to be key in both teamwork and individual problem-solving, and improvisation turns up everywhere) but there are hints of intriguing tensions and paradoxes that are not followed up. Small teams in tune with one another and with similar levels of skill make for musical or sporting excellence, but multi-functional groups or loose networks are better for generating new products. Planning, structure and improvisation have to happen in just the right combination -- but what that is depends heavily on task and context. Improvisation is inefficient and expensive but also the secret of success. Sawyer's anecdotes and examples are always entertaining and sometimes inspiring but don't always lead him on to deeper questions. Bizarrely, the book lacks a conclusion, whether because the author ran out of steam or perhaps just gave up on trying to unite his material.
Some will find the lack of theory frustrating but Sawyer is in management mode here and prefers business-guru tropes (ten ways to enable flow, ten secrets of collaborative organizations etc.). Some of the tips are depressingly familiar -- open plan offices -- but others are topical and even political: how to open a company to outside collaboration, compulsory licensing of proprietary material. The least successful chapters are those that deal with creative thinking, not because Sawyer doesn't know his stuff (he does) but because the basic thesis of collaboration comes under most strain, resulting in some tortuous reasoning. Training someone to do puzzles turns out to count as collaboration, as does building on ideas you acquired from others. This is rather like claiming that long jump should be considered a team sport because athletes get coached or discuss technique.
Group Genius is likely to irritate academic and critical readers, who will find its case overstated and undersupported. The basic approach of producing examples of people being creative in a social way will not convince skeptics that just as many examples could not be found of people breaking new ground alone. Sawyer is also in constant danger of concept creep, expanding the notions of both creativity and collaboration so broadly that it is not clear whether much human activity could be excluded. Genius aka creativity aka innovation: suddenly we are talking about new flavors of potato chips (sour cream and onion was a user innovation). Collaboration gets stretched even farther: a novelist who writes down snatches of overheard conversation is collaborating. So, presumably, would be the novelist who remembers conversations, or who learns what conversations tend to be like from engaging in them. How, in this sense, could a novelist not be collaborating? How could anyone do anything without collaborating?
© 2008 Justine Johnstone
Justine Johnstone, PhD, Science and Technology Policy Research, University of Sussex, UK.
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