Group creativity and collaboration: An interview with Dr. R. Keith Sawyer
With the 2007 publication of Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, Dr. R. Keith Sawyer put forth the notion that collaboration drives innovation. It was a radical claim at the time, one that stood in sharp relief next to the still widely accepted individualist perception that innovation arises from that rarest of unicorns: the lone genius. With the publication of his latest book, The Creative Classroom: Innovative Teaching for 21st Century Leaders, Dr. Sawyer continues his decades-long quest to understand the myriad links between creativity, collaboration and learning. Dr. Sawyer took some time out of his busy schedule at the University of North Carolina’s School of Education, where he serves as the Morgan Distinguished Professor of Educational Innovations, to help us explore group creativity and collaboration. Let’s jump into it.
Amanda Holst: Can you tell me about the roots of your group creativity research?
Keith Sawyer: I’m happy to talk about my research all day long! I’d say it goes back to my interest in improvisational music. I’m a jazz pianist, and I’ve been playing piano since before high school. I even played a couple of gigs last weekend. Playing in an ensemble with other people has always been fascinating for me.
Maybe I’m over-analytical, but I often think about what’s going on while I’m playing. The interaction between the other musicians and me. Everybody’s improvising, and no one knows what they’re going to be doing next. You certainly don’t know what the other people are going to be doing next. It’s very flexible, it’s unpredictable. Even if you thought you were going to do something, once the other person does something, you might have to change your plan.
So, in this sense, planning is not a good thing because when you’re planning you aren’t really listening. You’re too focused on what you want to do.
Then I studied Chicago improv theater for many years. I was a pianist with a couple of improv groups there, and those personal experiences led to my interest in group creativity and collaboration.
AH: What are the key takeaways in your research on the creative power of collaboration?
KS: In the 90s I found that this type of improvisational performance had a lot of applicability to everyday life. I started publishing journal articles and a couple of academic papers in the early 2000s, and it was around 2005-2006 when organizations began realizing that innovation is often driven by collaboration.
Before that time, organizations were thinking that they would be more innovative if they hired more creative people. Those people would have better ideas, and the company could get more patents or whatever, but the focus was on talent and hiring really creative people.
But it became widely acknowledged around that time that it’s collaborative teams that truly generate creativity and innovation. My research fit right in with that.
“If you scratch below the surface of even the most legendary moments of insight, you’ll always find a history of collaboration.”
My message was unique in showing that the most creative, collaborative teams would be the ones that were the most like an improvisational ensemble — where your actions are more a result of truly listening and then responding rather than independently planning your response.
If you’re writing the script in your head, you’re thinking ahead several lines of dialogue. Usually, that includes imagining what another member of the group is going to do next… and they never do that thing next.
I see the same thing with organizational teams; when they have these characteristics of improvisation they are more likely to drive innovation.
AH: Did you notice any other research gaps in creative group collaboration among teams and organizations?
KS: One of my key questions has been: what makes a group innovative or creative?
Group creativity is a type of group interaction where nobody in the group knows what will happen. No one’s able to predict ahead. And in that case, whatever happens at the group level cannot be attributed to any one individual. So the group has an idea after a one-hour meeting, for example.
It’s a shift in perspective to “Hey, we came up with this really cool thing” rather than an individual taking sole credit for what happened in the group. I would say the best creations emerge from groups, and this notion of collaborative emergence has been very important in my writings.
The idea is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Even though your team has, let’s say, five people interacting, the team then becomes more than just those five people in the room. It has a collective property and what is generated as a result should be attributed to the collective.
Theorizing around the collective turns out to be pretty complicated because there really are only five people after all. So, how is it that you think analytically about the relationship between those five people and then this collective emergent thing that is somehow bigger and better than the individual five people?
So I spent a lot of time working through that. I eventually developed a theoretical framework that applies, I think, to just about any collaboration among people. Then I started to scale it up to the organizational level. In my research with theater groups and jazz ensembles, I study groups that are usually less than 5 or 10 people, but many organizations have thousands of people. But I think you can apply the same theoretical framework to these large distributed networks of collaboration.
AH: Can you talk about the idea that creativity is always collaborative if working alone? What did you mean by that? How is that possible?
KS: I think it is a paradox, but I wanted to explore the paradox because of my psychology training. I’m interested in groups, but I’m also interested in individual creativity. And when you look at examples of real-world creativity, you find that, even when a person has an idea while they’re alone, you can always trace it back to interactions that they had prior to that moment.
People go through their lives and they’re never isolated forever in a cave. They are always engaged with other people or with the ideas of other people. Ideas you have when you are alone are deeply connected to the collective, to higher-level social encounters and experiences. If you scratch below the surface of even the most legendary moments of insights, you’ll always find a history of collaboration.
We often think that creativity is when a brilliant person has an insight, but the real story is always one of a complicated chain of these improvisational interactions. In that sense, the moment of the idea is just one moment in a very long and complicated social process.
AH: So, what are some myths about creativity in the workplace?
KS: One myth about creativity in the workplace is that all you need to do is hire very smart, talented individuals and then let them free to have brilliant ideas. Yes, you should hire smart and talented individuals, and you should let them free, but the problem is when you associate creativity with an individual, with the individual members of your organization. I’m talking about, you know, private corporations, nonprofits… any organization.
“When it comes to designing an environment for group creativity and collaboration, improvisation seems like the opposite of structure, but structure provides the foundation for improvisation.”
In any organized group of people honestly, you know, even if it’s distributed like a social media network, they’re all a form of organization and they all have lots of people. In those networks the people are interacting all the time. What I’m analyzing are situations where there’s flexibility and freedom in how people interact. So that there’s a conversationality. When organizations focus on the individual, I found that they, overall, tend to be less creative than those that emphasized collaboration.
AH: What do you see as the links between creativity and education, and creativity and the organization?
KS: I use a theoretical framework that I call social emergence. It addresses what emerges from interactions among groups of improvisational and unstructured people.
Social emergence, hopefully, is what a lot of organizational leaders want, as it gets to the heart of how groups can be innovative and solve problems.
But the framework that I developed also applies to teams that are learning together. It’s collaborative learning, whether it’s a group of students in a classroom, a study group on the weekend, or a learning management system that allows for collective interactions among students.
The link here is that the most effective groups enable social emergence, which comes back to fostering an environment for those characteristics of improvisation.
AH: What role does technology play in the context of how leaders and organizations are now trying to leverage group creativity?
KS: My undergraduate degree is in computer science, and I did software development for eight years before I began studying creativity, so I’m always looking for what’s new in technology. It’s important to keep in mind that a lot of new technology doesn’t fundamentally change how people interact. In many cases, you could do the same thing face-to-face, maybe more successfully than in what is sometimes called computer-supported, collaborative learning.
But some technologies can enhance collaboration, and this is an active area of research.
If you understand the science of how people learn and the science of interactions and collaboration, you can design a structured, scaffolded interaction system that allows for more improvisational collaborative experience. When it comes to designing an environment for group creativity and collaboration, improvisation seems like the opposite of structure, but structure provides the foundation for improvisation.
There’s never pure improvisation without any structure. When I’m looking at classrooms, I call the balance between structure and improvisation guided improvisation.
AH: How would you explain creativity to somebody who hasn’t read your research on how creativity works?
KS: That’s the big question! I would frame that question as “What does the creative process look like?” And from there I’d debunk what it is not: it’s not a single moment where a person has an idea. I’d explain how creativity emerges through a process and through time, which are all things you can usually observe.
When you’re studying that creative process through time, I think that’s where you see how creativity really works. You see that it’s a wandering improvisational process. Even if one person is doing it alone, it’s still not going to be linear. Zigzag is the process. And that’s the title of my 2013 book called Zigzag, which is about the creative process through time.
That’s how creativity works. I think it’s important to focus on the process, and the process will involve lots and lots of tiny ideas, small sparks. No one of those is the solution to your problem, but each spark contributes to moving ideas forward. And then it’s about all the factors that allow us as individuals and groups to keep having these small sparks of ideas.
AH: What do you think is most impacting teams and their ability to creatively collaborate right now?
KS: I don’t think the fundamental nature of collaboration in organizations has changed over the decades. But let’s talk about the last two years when people obviously weren’t collaborating in-person as much. For online teams, there’s been research on virtual teams that goes back to the 90s, even before the Internet. In some cases, research shows that being together as a virtual team can result in more creativity. For a variety of reasons, virtual brainstorming can be a lot more effective than face-to-face brainstorming.
It’s not always better to be face to face.
AH: Can you talk about Flow State and how that might apply to group creativity and collaboration?
KS: The term “flow” was coined by my doctoral advisor, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who made that word famous in 1990 with the publication of his classic book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The book helped usher in this new arena of positive psychology, the study of people at peak performance.
You get into the flow state when you’re doing something that’s intrinsically motivating. You rarely get into the flow state if you’re doing something for an external reward. Flow research started in the 80s and 90s and then started to influence creativity research because it’s a very strong finding that you’re more creative when you’re intrinsically motivated to engage in a task. I was very fortunate to have Csikszentmihalyi as my doctoral advisor.
“Great things can happen when the leadership function itself becomes collaborative.”
When I applied my studies of improvisational groups to organizational teams, I noticed that something emerges in effective groups which I refer to as group flow. It’s a collective flow, a state that the whole group gets in together. It’s similar to the flow state for individuals. Group flow is a critical component of group creativity and collaboration.
AH: What would you say are the key questions those wanting to unlock group creativity should ask?
KS: First: what can you do to make the group more creative? Put another way: how can you contribute to this interactional improvisation where something great emerges from the group? So, hopefully, you know, you’re selfless enough to want the group you’re in to be successful. So that’s one question.
Another question would be: how can you be in groups that will make you more individually creative?
However, there are many variations to these questions. Suppose you are the CEO of an organization, and you’re trying to improve the collaboration of the teams in your organization. In that case, that’s a very different question than if you’re an individual in a group. Still, it comes down to those basics of deep listening before trying to write any scripts.
AH: Do you have any advice for leaders? How can they leverage creativity to take their teams to the next level?
KS: For starters, I think it’s important for leaders not to overly incentivize individuals at the expense of incentivizing the group. A focus on rewarding individuals can pull away from the improvisational nature we’ve been talking about.
And then I would say another one is leadership, or how leadership is viewed and executed in an organization. I think it’s important not to associate the leadership function with one person, but to think of leadership as a distributed phenomenon, where leadership is, let’s say, more agile. Suppose you have a distributed structure and process where the organization’s leader defers some of that leadership function to others.
Great things can happen when the leadership function itself becomes collaborative, and to some extent improvisational where the nature of leadership itself becomes emergent. It arises from the organization and is not embodied in that one person who has the corner office. That type of distributed leadership is associated with a more collaborative organizational culture.
After incentives and leadership, culture is another bucket. You really won’t behave in this improvisational fashion if the organizational culture frowns down on it or expects you to always know exactly what you want and be very clear about what you’re saying.
A fourth bucket would be the organization’s structure, which can be fairly complicated. But I would promote structures that are not purely based on functional areas and that are reconfigurable. These ideas probably aren’t surprising to anyone who studies organizational theory.
But the way, I bring all four of those buckets together, I think, through the improvisation and emergence theoretical framework which helps me see the synergistic nature of all the pieces.
AH: Any final advice to modern teams in the workplace?
KS: I guess I would say to keep in mind that it’s not about you. It’s difficult for people to shift the focus from themselves to the world, from the individual to the group, from creativity as an idea to creativity as an ongoing process. But once you make those shifts, I think it becomes more natural to see why the group is so beneficial for creativity and collaboration.
Related reading about collaboration
May 19, 2022 — Emily Brooks
May 12, 2022 — Shawna Anthony