Our member Todd Johnston participated to TEDx Livermore: Uncorking Creativity. It was a real honor being part of a program having many wonderful and inspiring artists, performers, teachers, innovators and entrepreneurs – not to mention the local TEDx team who was extremely supportive.

The whole day was Livestreamed: you can see Todd’s talk below, followed by the transcript.


Good morning.

I want to begin with a simple assertion:

To be human is to be creative.

It is in our nature. Unlike batteries, creativity is included in the package.

Now, we may each have our own means of expressing this creativity, and our own perception of our creativity relative to other people may vary.

And, certainly, good arguments have been made that as we grow up and are socialized into the world, our abilities to tap into and express our creativity may diminish if they are not developed and practiced.

But at a fundamental level, whether it is expressed by baking cakes or writing code, painting portraits or snapping selfies, architecting buildings or building businesses, we are all innately and unavoidably creative.

And it is this creativity which lies within each of us that has largely brought about and enabled the world we live in, with all of it’s incredible beauty, sophistication and capability.

And we have no reason not to think that immeasurable good things will continue to be brought into the world with this creative force.

And yet…

The sum of our creativity is not enough.

It is not enough to solve for the kind of complex problems that we as a species have created and will continue to create as a natural course of our lives.

It is not going to be enough to solve the challenges that matter most in our organizations, institutions, communities, ecosystems and so forth.

There’s hardly an occasion when one isn’t reminded of some great, pithy comment by Einstein, right? Here’s one I’m sure you’re all familiar with in some variation:

“A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”

It is going to take not just a new type of thinking, but new types of creativity.

And this brings me to the idea that I want to share with you today.

What if we were to be able to bring together groups … anywhere from a few dozen to a several hundred … bring them into an environment and process to tap into not only the individual creativity but the emergent potential of that group interacting in a collective, collaborative flow?

What if this could be applied towards the challenges we face in designing our organizations, unleashing innovation, improving how we govern ourselves, and devising solutions to complex, wicked problems?

Could this be one such “new type” of creativity that can help us move toward higher levels?

This is a phenomenon I’ve been exploring for about the past 22 years. And my experience tells me it is not only possible, it is essential.

The world requires Group Genius.

One name given to this form of mass creativity is Group Genius.

This has been the basis of active experimentation, research and entrepreneurship of a community of designers, facilitators and artists for at least the last 35 years.

To my knowledge, the term was first coined and defined by Gail Taylor, a pioneer in the field, when she defined it circa 1980 as:

“The ability of a group working iteratively and collaboratively to seek, model and put into place higher-order solutions. 

Time compression, consistent flow-state, dynamic feedback, individual and collective creativity are core features of Group Genius.” 

Today, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of practitioners and dozens of organizations, communities, collectives, and coalitions embracing the idea that there is a creative genius within groups that is of a higher order than our individual creativity and that can be accessed and tapped to help solve the most difficult and intractable challenges that we face.

A lot has been said, written and even codified into methodology in regards to tapping into this phenomenon. My hope is that at some point after you leave this theater, you’ll seek out and explore this body of knowledge and the people who are creating it.

With my time today, I simply want to share my passion for this idea as well as a few of the guiding principles that have served me well in serving this notion, which I believe will play a pivotal role in shaping our world over the coming years and decades.

As least I hope it will. Because without it, we are far less likely to survive and move to those higher levels Einstein spoke off.

Group Genius cannot be mandated; It is an emergent phenomenon.

As convenient as it would be, you cannot simply sprinkle a little Group Genius into your gathering. Alas, it is an emergent phenomenon and, as such, cannot be mandated or prescribed into a group interaction.

What you can do is create a space for group genius to emerge. You can enhance and increase the likelihood that the interactions you are designing can lead to a result that is qualitatively different and more powerful than the sum of its parts.  

So what are some of the conditions that can create this space for emergence?

Infuse your convening with Requisite Creativity.

This is a personal derivative of the Law of Requisite Variety, or Ashby’s Law, for the person credited with its original formulation.

The law states that “The larger the variety of actions available to a control system, the larger the variety of perturbations it is able to compensate.”

What does this have to do with how we convene and facilitate groups to access their creativity and get work done?

Think of the control system as the collective knowledge, experience, intelligences, vantage points, and resources available to participants.  Consider then how to maximize the variety of possible actions available to the group when dealing with all the complexities of the issues you are tackling.

Requisite Participation: First, consider the makeup of the participant group itself.

Is there requisite diversity and depth of knowledge and experience in participants to compensate for the complexity of the issues you are addressing?

Is the entire Value Web of stakeholders present or represented in some fashion?

Have you included any Wild Cards – outside thinkers, who through both their knowledge and their niaevity bring a kind of thinking that can distrupt, perturb, compliment and challenge the thinking and assumptions (often hidden) that come from inside the organization, community or network.

A simple formula to remember: the 7% solution. Your participant body should include at least that many “wild cards”.

Requisite Perspective: What kinds of activities and interactions can you instigate that will get participants untethered from their current grasp on reality?

How are you going to get them outside of their own perspective, to where they can perceive, think and design from a larger systems perspective?

This need not be an abstract, academic experience. in just 30 minutes to an hour it is possible to instill an appreciation and understanding of the principles and dynamics at play in complex adaptive systems.

Whether it be through an exploration of the human body or brain, biomes such as rainforests or coral reefs, or fractals and other patterns found in nature … all of these provide an entertaining and accessible gateway into systems thinking.

Today, with all the Internet provides for, not the least 1500+ TEDTalks, I suggest it is not hard to find mind-blowing content contextualized to be profoundly relevant to the work you are doing.

Requisite Environment: Consider the environment in which you are asking people to design and create. Does it allow for participants to:

Work Big. Surround Yourself In Your Ideas. The environment should be flexible, with moment to moment ability to configure to the task at hand. Brainstorming, synthesizing, engineering solutions each demand different environments. Working individually, in small groups and large groups have different dynamics and should be treated differently. Static environments lead to static dialogue.

One of the best, shortest descriptions I’ve heard of measuring for a “Montessori for adults”.

Screenshot 2014-09-24 10.21.13

Embrace play.

Seriously.  If no “ha ha!” then you’re likely to have no “ah ha!”

Play is a modality of learning, of discovery. It is hands on, active. It combines intellect, emotion, and physical acumen. To be clear, play is not something you do aside from the hard work of designing change; it is an important modality in which you engage in the work of designing change.

There are many ways in which you can use play constructively in a collaborative design setting.

Gamification and simulation are great tools for exploring social, economic and organizational alternatives and scenarios.

Creating telling and acting out stories – make visible the philosophical and cultural values in the life stages of an idea, innovation or community.

Among my favorite playful activities is building 3D and 4D models that depict a system as it exists today or it is envisioned existing in the future. This works for several reasons: it not only reveals the parts of the system, but moreso their relationships and interdependencies; it changes the conversation, so that participants have to really think about and articulate how the system works from end to end; and by working with their hands, it actually changes how participants think – it requires different parts of the brain and body.

What else is critical for releasing Group Genius?


Provide a chance for ideas to incubate.

Creativity is not contained by rational, linear, logical thought. It is not manifested purely by our consciousness.

Play hard. Play broadly. Explore edges. And then leave people there, to ponder, to reflect, to grow restless, to be lost and unclear where exactly they are, where exactly they are going, and how exactly, they are going to get there.

And let the ideas stew in the juices of the unconscious, the non-rational imaginings of dreams. Here, we see connections we cannot see with our rational, waking minds.

The Latin root of incubate means “to lie”.

In other words then, what I am suggesting is that Group Genius is best served if you provide the participants an opportunity to lie down, and sleep on it.

Return after a sleep cycle, into a clean, open environment, with all of the work that has been produced up on display and accessible and …

Let the system self-organize.

If you’ve met the condition of requisite creativity and engaged the participants in an intensive, play-full process of exploration, dialogue, and hands on design, then let the subconscious, non-rational mind stew on the experience, participants will come back into the design process in a different mind than where they left.

Bring them together into a synthesis conversation, through which the ideas and design conversations from the earlier phases of the process converge. Ideas that are strong, that resonate, that have ownership will rise from within, from the bottom up. The shared experience, language and intent created through the earlier stages of the process more often than not enables the group to explode into action with precision and energy, accomplishing in a matter of hours what would typically take days, weeks, even months.

Which brings me to where I want to close this conversation.

Witness ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary things.

I have been fortunate to work in Africa, Australia, Canada, China, many places in Europe and all over the US. Usually with a shared language, but even in some cases where no one language was shared, I’ve witnessed the emergence of Group Genius.

Here are just a few of the kinds of “extraordinary” things I’ve seen groups accomplish in a few days time together:

Accelerating organizational development and change: Routinely taking months off the planning and development cycle of products, services and enterprises. It has been used to shave months off the process of preparing an IPO as well as the testing process of a trans-continental aircraft, among others.

Breakthrough ideas: Bringing together a community of scientist, thought leaders, entreprenuers, writers, journalists, engineers and concerned citizenry to address how we might prepare society for the coming age of Nanotech, the event, “Group Genius Weekend” produced what participants identified as brand new thinking and ideas to a subject many had been contemplating for years.

Cultural impact: It has helped to resolve seemingly intractable divisions between labor and management, in which conflict and direct confrontation had been steadily escalating. It has proven effective and bringing both culture and operations into alignment after mergers or aquistions.

Individual transformation: Another account is when, at the end of an event, the CEO approached and said he had a profound insight in working so intensively and collaboratively with his team. He realized that up until then, his mental models of his colleagues and employees were based on who they had been. Through the event, he’d come to form new models based on who they were becoming, who they aspired to be.

This subtle shift completely reframed how he approached his relationships.

(Note, in my talk, I was running out of time, so I omitted the few comments I had prepared on what I see as the future of facilitating Group Genius.)

Looking to the future, Group Genius is only in its youth; early in it’s lifecycle, having just scratched the surface of what is possible – and what is needed.

Over the coming years, it needs to scale up, to be able to be a platform with which different networks, communities and industries can be brought together in the spirit of co-design and co-creation.

Technology and other innovations are opening up whole new possibilities for how we can combine our creativity.

The science is catching up with the art. Over the last few decades and with increasing velocity – research, content and knowledge about how our brains, bodies, organizations and ecosystems interact is providing powerful insight into how the craft is practiced.

Whether your work and ambition aligns with influencing a systemic paradigm shift or you are simply wanting for ways with which you can accelerate learning, foster insight, build alignment, initiate action, Group Genius is available to you.

I invite you to seek it, embrace it and use it in service to humankind’s creative quest to reach those higher levels Einstein has called to our attention.

Thank you.


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