October 23, 2019

The age of the Lone Genius is over

I propose, potentially controversially, that our next great discoveries, technical achievements or otherwise giant leaps in human progress will be the product of collaboration and not the efforts of lone genii.

It’s a controversial statement because our education system (or at least the system I grew up with in the UK) is geared towards the individual. You learn on your own, you are tested on your own and move up or down social and academic ranks based on your own performance. I’m not condemning the education system, merely pointing out that it prizes individual effort over collaboration. Which is, in my opinion, counter productive for real progress.

If you already believe that teams can achieve more than individuals then that’s probably because there exist supporting anecdotes wherever you choose to look. Cycling for example, a notoriously individual activity, now the elite races are won only as part of a team. The discovery of water on Mars, only possible by teams of hundreds designing, building and operating the most advanced satellites. But I work for a data led company so let’s look at some data. In fact I’m going to choose perhaps the most individualistic environment possible, the top of our education system, the Nobel prize.

Trend of how many people won the Nobel Prize in each category. This graph is a moving average of period 20.

In almost every discipline the pinnacle of human intellect is increasingly being reached through collaboration.

So what’s my point? Teams matter. Hard problems are not only solved more easily by teams but they actually require teams. Of course more collaboration and stronger social ties has great social and health benefits too but my message is that teams are the best way to solve the next great problems and fulfil our next big ambitions.

And yet in school and the workplace we’re still stuck in the old ways of individualism. In new jobs we are interviewed in isolation, rarely evaluated as part of the team we will be working with and then once we have the job our performance is treated as if it was independent from our team environment. So perhaps, if we want to see greater success in business, we should place more emphasis on the design of teams and treat individual performance as a result of team collaboration.

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