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Reading list

October 2011

Carrol Capital

Reading list

Books and articles that matter

By Dean Andy Boynton

Some of the most innovative ideas begin with casual conversations and take shape during spontaneous collaborations, Keith Sawyer reminds us in Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration (Basic Books, 2007).

A faculty member in the psychology and education departments at Washington University in St. Louis, Sawyer underscores and expands on the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, former head of the psychology department at the University of Chicago, where Sawyer got his Ph.D. Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow” to describe a state of heightened consciousness in which a person is single-mindedly immersed in performing a task or resolving a problem, invested in that process, and confident in its success. Csikszentmihalyi identified 10 factors—including clear goals, concentration, a sense of personal control, and intrinsic rewards—that he considers particularly conducive to flow.

Sawyer, a jazz pianist during high school and college who sits in occasionally with professional performers, argues that “improvised innovation” can generate a peak experience in which a team of talented individuals, each performing at his or her top level of ability, contributes to a spontaneous, creative flow that can culminate in “group genius.”

Group genius in the workplace can only occur within an “organizational culture that fosters equivocality, improvised innovation, and constant conversation,” writes Sawyer, who reminds readers: “Collaboration drives creativity because innovation always emerges from a series of sparks—never a single flash of insight.”

We have seen at the Carroll School what Sawyer knows: rich and vivid conversations that bring together the right group of people in the right place unleash a flow of ideas and enhance an organization’s culture of innovation.

A few years ago, we set out to strengthen the school’s research culture. We knew that in order to succeed, we had to encourage frequent exchange of ideas among colleagues and peers. Now, six or seven times a year, the entire faculty gathers for lunch and research and teaching conversations that spur freewheeling, energized debate and discussion among talented people invested in the Carroll School’s success. Every so often, we see glimmers of group genius.

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