Group Genius Challenges While Working Remote

By Alexandra K Ward

Although still somewhat emergent, the science of social collaboration has found that we can create ideal conditions for working with others and experiencing “group genius.” Group genius is the pinnacle of this team collaboration. The phrase describes instances in which teams, individuals sharing a defined goal, enter into a state of flow during the process of reaching their objective. They innovate together with ease, they solve problems with creativity, time melts away as they work.

These characteristics are not unlike those experienced by individuals in flow. The key distinction is that while individuals in flow experience loss of self, groups in flow experience ego blending wherein each person’s idea builds on those ideas their colleagues just contributed (Sawyer, 39). From this process emerges innovation.

Group genius is not a group of individuals in flow, but rather describes the group dynamic of individuals subordinate to the group performance (Kotler, 2014). In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Solving the world’s greatest challenges to-date has required teams to be in this optimized performance state.

OUR COLLECTIVE FUTURE WILL BE BUILT BY TEAMS WORKING IN VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENTS

Why start by discussing group genius while working remote? Well, in short, tapping into group genius in virtual environments is absolutely critical to our shared future. The COVID-19 global pandemic has undoubtedly halted and permanently changed many of our routines — both personal and professional. In times of transition, such as these, we have the responsibility to reimagine and pursue a future different from the one for which we had been planning.

Importantly, the problems facing our societies today are only increasing in complexity. We cannot depend on, nor do we have the luxury of benefiting from, the magic that happens when groups are physically present, in flow, innovating and solving challenges. Utilizing existing technologies and developing new methods for unleashing group genius in virtual environments is a top priority for Transcendeam.

TEN SOCIAL TRIGGERS OF GROUP GENIUS

Let’s explore group genius in more detail. Keith Sawyer, psychologist and expert on creativity, identified ten social triggers that he found create ideal conditions for group genius (36–44).

  1. Groups must have shared, defined goals to work toward.
  2. Group members must be fully engaged in close listening and respond to each other in the moment, not planning ahead what to say. As Sawyer notes, “innovation is blocked when one or more participants already has a preconceived idea of how to get to the goal.”
  3. Of course, complete concentration free of distraction by deadlines or external rewards of task completion helps create conditions for group genius to occur.
  4. Additionally, the group must have team autonomy, in other words, be trusted and in control of their creative process.
  5. Sawyer explains the phenomenon of blending egos as small ideas that build together and an innovation emerges: “the improvisation seems guided by an invisible hand toward a climactic peak.” It’s a form of group humility without any one member hogging the spotlight.
  6. Equal participation and therefore comparable skill levels are a prerequisite for group genius. Managers can participate in groups in flow, but they must participate in the same way as everyone else — engaging in close listening, granting autonomy and authority to the group’s emergent decision processes.
  7. Because immediate feedback is critical to flow, groups need not just familiarity but to share enough communicational style to mutually respond to each other.
  8. Group flow requires constant communication. Not just in meetings, but informal exchanges, too. Group flow is more likely to happen in spontaneous conversations in the lunch room or in social settings after work.
  9. Sawyer uses the phrase “keep it moving forward” to describe listening closely to what’s being said; accepting it fully; and then extending and building on it. The basic rule is always say “yes.” Interactions should be additive, not argumentative (Kotler, 2014).
  10. Lastly, the potential for failure plays a big role in our psyche, which turns out is essential to group flow. As Sawyer states: “There’s no creativity without failure, and there’s no group flow without the risk of failure.”

CREATING IDEAL CONDITIONS FOR GROUP GENIUS IN VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENTS

Of Sawyer’s ten ideal conditions for group genius, only constant communication is completely sideswiped by moving from physical to virtual work spaces. Teams, whether physically present or remote, can still establish defined goals, be fully engaged, concentrate, have team autonomy, experience blending egos, participate equally, share communication style, “yes, and” one another, and face potential for failure. With currently available technology, we can easily recreate these conditions in virtual environments, but we’re unable to recreate the spontaneity of constant communication.

It’s during the unpremeditated conversations in the hallway and socializing after work that group members relax and release. As social beings, companionship drives focus into the now (Kotler, 2014). These moments are not only important for building trust and increasing familiarity, but relaxation actually releases incredibly powerful social bonding neurochemicals, dopamine, norepinephrine and endorphins, in the brain, which are key to both individual and group flow states (Kotler, 2014). So experiencing a group genius session after returning from a team coffee break is hardly surprising. As it stands, the hallways are empty and we’re not taking coffee breaks or going out for happy hours together anymore — not even Zoom happy hours, which seemed to have lost their luster around May.

TODAY’S TECHNOLOGY OPTIONS FOR CONSTANT COMMUNICATION

So what tools are being developed to help us replicate these essential interactions? At large tech companies, digital team-oriented platforms are in constant development out of necessity and sky-rocketed demand. These platforms are being refined and refined again to provide us with user-friendly tools for distance collaboration.

Microsoft Teams has recently added Together Mode, that, among other features, uses AI segmentation technology to digitally place participants in a shared background to minimize background distractions and make it easier to pick up on non-verbal cues (Spataro, “The Future”).

Google Workspace has been working to roll out their Meet picture-in-picture to Docs, Sheets, and Slides (already available in Gmail and Chat), so you can actually see and hear the people you’re working with, while you’re collaborating (Soltero, “Introducing”).

While these technologies help us coordinate and communicate during meetings, we still lack tools to trigger spontaneous, social interaction where we can release and then flow.

NEXT LEVEL TECHNOLOGY

The human body and mind are best-suited for movement, both physical and intellectual. Sitting all day staring at screens isn’t using technology to optimize our human experience. I imagine we’ll soon be embracing other technologies that are better suited for human interaction and group dynamics, with which we can create optimal conditions for group genius, such as VR and AR. Perhaps a solution lies in video game technology. Perhaps in the near future, we’ll find ourselves in worlds created and modeled after our own, where each person interacts in real time with other individuals in the same “space,” just like we used to.

DISCUSSION

Has your team experienced group genius? Has your team experienced group genius in a virtual environment? How have you been able to foster Sawyer’s constant communication with your team? What tools do you use? What other challenges or advantages have you discovered by transitioning your team collaboration processes to virtual environments? Please join the discussion and comment below.

Sources

Kotler, Steven. The Rise of Superman. Read by Jeff Cummings. Audible, 2014.

Sawyer, Keith. “Group Flow and Group Genius.” The NAMTA Journal 40, no.3 (Summer 2015): 29–52.

Spataro, Jared. “The Future of Work-the Good, the Challenging & the Unknown.” Microsoft 365 Blog, July 8, 2020. https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoft-365/blog/2020/07/08/future-work-good-challenging-unknown/. Accessed October 15, 2020.

Soltero, Javier. “Introducing Google Workspace.” Google Blog, October 6, 2020. https://cloud.google.com/blog/products/workspace/introducing-google-workspace. Accessed October 15, 2020.

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