Summoning Genius

Positive Psychology is the study of mental health, as opposed to the study of mental illness. Unfortunately it is still somewhat of a fringe discipline– most psychology is still the study of illness and how to cure it, rather than studying health and character strengths and how to develop them. This is the equivalent in conventional Western medicine of being able to heal broken bones and do surgeries, but not seeing the benefit of healthy eating and exercise.

There is now some research and discussion on how to develop psychological health on an individual basis. You can find science-based books on happiness, grit, resilience, optimism, flow, and more. There is a Handbook of Character Strengths and Virtues that catalogs what is known about character strengths, how to tell if someone has them, and what is known about how to increase them.

But little seems to be known about positive psychology and teams – the study of what makes teams psychologically healthy, high performance, fun, and growth-oriented. This is odd to me since teams are a fundamental unit of social organization in the workplace – teams are how work gets done. There are a lot of anecdotes – business magazines lionize successful companies and tell stories about what makes them successful, at least financially successful. Some industries like manufacturing have practices (like Lean Thinking or the Toyota Production System) but what about industries that rely mainly on creative work? Success is more than just financial success, but even on that level can we take what we know about a productive team or company and repeat its success with any level of confidence? Probably not, since exceptional teams and companies are rare.

This is important to us – individually and as a society. Positive psychologist Abraham Maslow said that as individuals, we want to work in a healthy and fun environment that helps us develop as people, meets our personal needs, and contributes back to society. As a society, we have pressing challenges – global warming, ecological problems, resource exhaustion, war, poverty, and the survival of our species, to name a few – and we could use highly effective help solving these problems.

That is why I’m interested in genius-level teams – high-performance teams that perform collectively at the level of a human genius, teams that can tackle and solve the pressing problems facing our world. It’s clear there have been teams like this in the past, and they have accomplished great things. I would also say there are some teams like that operating today. I’ve been lucky enough to have been on teams that performed that way for short periods of time.

How do we do it on command, reliably, repeatably, and often enough to make a significant difference to our world?

As a species and a civilization, we need this ability. We need to summon genius when needed. We can’t wait for it to be born. We can’t wait for the ones that are born to decide to work on the problems we consider important.

When we gain this ability, I am sure there will be many ways to do it. I don’t know them all. But I believe we can find them together. I believe we can learn new greatness-skills, work in healthy ways, have world-changing and world-healing creative breakthroughs, do work that is fulfilling and meaningful, and solve important problems.

To start along that path, I want to write down what I know about this topic as an easy-to-use handbook on how to be an effective team member– the handbook I want for myself. The journey from being an average team to being a high-performing one starts with a single team member. That member can be me. Or you. We don’t have to be a genius ourselves. This transformation can happen if we care, if we’re willing to be vulnerable and take the risk to start to change our aspirations, our viewpoint, our behaviors, our habits. It can happen if we take the risk to grow.

Unusually effective teams – genius-level teams – are also unusually creative. Surmounting hard problems requires hard work, but hard work isn’t enough. So this handbook is also about creativity as an individual and as a team.

Being a team member also means being an effective leader. In great teams, people lead and follow as called for in the moment. That may mean creating safety, modeling vulnerability, taking the initiative, raising controversial issues, or teaching these skills to others, so that the team as a whole is more effective. Leadership is a deep subject, so this book will only scratch the surface, but my hope is that this handbook can be used by people to help themselves and their teams move toward being highly effective. I also hope people will share this knowledge with each other, to improve this handbook, ideas, and skills.

I want this handbook to be based much as possible on science, on what is known to work, with an emphasis on how to do it. I want it to be an open source book that can be improved on over time with help from others, a guide that I can use myself to give me courage and inspiration, and one I can use with my teams to help them grow and accomplish their goals and give back to the world.

So I’m going to try to write it here on this blog and see where it goes. I’m inviting you to join me in exploring this topic together.

Here’s the book: Summoning Genius