Innovation is a team sport, and no one describes this better than Professor Keith Sawyer in his book, Group Genius. Keith’s blog, Creativity & Innovation, highlights one of the most significant aspects of successful innovation – that groups of people are likely to be more creative than individuals working on their own. His latest example of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios illustrates this well.
“Creativity involves a large number of people from different disciplines working together to solve a great many problems…A movie contains literally tens of thousands of ideas.” (Ed Catmull, Pesident of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios)
Why are groups so effective? What is the optimal group size? What is the best way to leverage the group dynamic? As a practitioner and teacher of innovation, I have witnessed group innovation many times in many settings, and I observe three factors that might explain why teams outperform individuals at innovating.
First, people engage and ideate sooner when paired with teammates. It’s caused by the commitment people feel when associated with a group. It is switched on automatically by a sense of common purpose. When given an innovation task, people rise to the occasion to live up to their commitments. And they do it immediately. They feel less competition with internal rivals, and they experience a temporary camaraderie to perform. They “power up” their creative engines knowing a teammate is waiting for ideas to come out. They expect the same effort in return from the teammate.
Contrast that with working alone. When alone, people head in a different direction. They initiate a lot of pre-thought before they get to ideating. For example, they might frame the problem differently, they consider what they know and don’t know, they consider the risks and rewards of their efforts, they consider what their rivals might be up to, they consider their status in the group and how to maintain or improve it, and they wonder how best to use their time. Then they ideate. Not only does this burn up a lot of cognitive capacity and energy, but it also delays the onset of ideation. It’s wasteful.
Another reason groups excel: Two people can innovate more “cheaply” than one. Just as two people can live together more cheaply (per person) than on their own (about 70% vs. alone according to experts), so it is with innovation. It takes less exertion when innovating with a teammate. People feel supported when part of a team, and they can perform with a different ratio of mental input to creative output. This boost in ideation for the same level of effort yields better results than the lone genius.
Finally, people can think creatively with a wider variance knowing they have a partner to reel them back in if they get too crazy. With a partner, people ideate with less anxiety about getting wild and weird. They are less fearful of failing. They can express ideas while counting on their partners to modify the idea to become more viable. People become bolder when they innovate in groups.
What is the optimal group size? It depends on the job at hand. Pixar needs 200 to 250 to produce a movie. But new product workshops can be as small as 12 to 14. In all cases, it is essential group members are diverse, cross-functional, gender-balanced, and culturally split.
A much more critical issue is the size of the ideation sub-group. From my experience, the optimal size is two to three. Innovation happens in small clusters, not in the larger group setting. The Sooner, Better, Bolder Effect works best when people move in and out of these small sub-groups in a transient and random way. Pixar, as Keith reports, tries to leverage this with design of their office space to foster “maximum inadvertent encounters.”
Perhaps Professor Sawyer would forgive me if I suggest Group Genius might be better named Small Group Genius.