Is the age of the lone genius over?

Why looking to lone genii for innovations is wrongheaded

This is a contributed piece by Alistair Shepherd, founder of people analytics company Saberr


In the 20th century there was Einstein, Tesla and Edison. In the 21st we have Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Elon Musk. Today’s culture is wired to venerate exceptional individuals - or ‘lone genii’ - from whom all our profound artistic and scientific innovations spring. It may then be controversial to claim that our next great discoveries, achievements and ‘giant leaps’ in human understanding will not be the product of individual excellence but the products of collaboration.

It’s easy to understand how we got to this stage: in the UK at least, our entire education system seems designed with the individual in mind. We are taught in groups but tested on our own, we are considered and assessed for jobs on our performance as individuals.

I’m not condemning this system, rather I’m pointing out that the system recognises and rewards individual effort over team collaboration. This is counterproductive if we are trying to make real progress. While it’s easier for the media if we attribute discoveries and developments to single individuals, as social creatures, almost anything humans accomplish is down to teamwork. From discovering water on Mars to winning the Tour de France, teams are central.

This is beginning to be recognised by one of the most respected institutions for acknowledging human achievement: the Nobel Prize committee.

This is a moving average of the number of times a Nobel Prize has been shared. In most prizes there is a clear upward trend, and when one considers the work of a scientist it’s easy to understand why - breakthroughs are nearly impossible to achieve without the support of a team.

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Teams matter. In fact I would go as far as to say not only do they matter but that hard problems require them, and effective teams can have strong social and health benefits as well. Despite this, the classroom and the office are still inhibited by an individualistic mindset - if we are to truly make use of human potential then we must recognise the power of teams. As a first step we need to gain greater understanding of how to implement them effectively in everyday situations.

Teams have not been incorporated as fully as they should be in everyday life, and this is partially because they tend to get a bad reputation. Cast your mind back to the last time you had to endure a long and pointless meeting in the office - you probably don’t have to look too far into the past. We are surrounded by examples of very high-profile team failures, the current US Congress being a particularly prominent example. The Brazil team’s performance in the 2014 football World Cup is another; the team was over-reliant on the “lone genius” of Neymar, and when he was injured before their semi-final match against Germany, the team’s desperation was evident, and the tournament host team went on to lose 7-1 against Germany.

All this begs the question: how can we make teams work more effectively? The most important aspect of strong teamwork is the foundation on which the team is initially created. The purpose of the team must be clearly defined at the outset. Your team could be made up of stellar members, but if those people are not clear about the overarching brief, motivations will not be aligned and substandard work will be the output.

Teams are not a panacea - they can outperform individuals in tasks, but only under the right circumstances. Under the wrong circumstances, where values are not aligned between members and tasks are not clearly defined, then a team can actually perform worse than an individual. In a badly designed team where no one is prepared to make the tough decisions, the power often concentrates not in the hands of the most qualified, but in those of the loudest and most confident members. We find the work of individuals much easier to analyse: there are fewer variables, and what variables do exist are easier to control. But this, in my opinion, is a recipe for mediocrity.

The evidence that strong teams are more effective than individuals is abundant, but in order to create a strong team, more effort needs to go into assessing the relationships between each member. A famous research study from The National Transportation Safety Board found that 73% of flight incidents in its database occurred on a crew’s first day of flying together, with 44% of those taking place on a crew’s very first flight.

If today’s businesses are to truly take advantage of the power of teams they need to be proactive in thinking about the relationship quality between team members.  This means companies need to broaden their hiring horizons. Hiring from the same source every time will likely ingrain behavioural biases and repeated mistakes into the process. Most hiring managers would be better off if they placed less emphasis on skills and more emphasis on how well they think the new candidate would work with the existing team. And that doesn’t mean a cookie-cutter hiring strategy - the presence of social and intellectual diversity within a team is something proven to hugely benefit its performance.