Innovation, Teams and Dinosaur Eggs

A  few things I’ve read recently seem, quite independently, to be pointing in the same sort of direction.

First, an article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker exploring the genesis of ideas and innovation. Second, a paper in the HBR on the innovation machine that is Google. Third, Ronald Cohen’s book on his career in private equity, The Second Bounce of the Ball. They’re all talking, in their own ways, about the value of teams, and the ways teams need to be viewed, constructed and supported to ensure they achieve their goals.

Malcolm Gladwell’s piece is a tour through the birth of the telephone – an example of the phenomenon of simultaneous discovery or multiples – the offices of Intellectual Ventures, where brilliant minds sit over dinner (overseen by an IP attorney) and crank out “8 single-spaced pages of ideas”.

The historical detour Gladwell takes over a wide range of early examples of simultaneous invention leads him to talk about the way that things like calculus, the steamboat, typewriters, thermometers
– to mention just are few – were all ‘in the air. They were all claimed as the “exclusive” discoveries by multiple people. The patent for the telephone was filed by two people, Bell and Elisha Gray, on the same day. [Historians have competing accounts of how this came to be – different accounts pointing accusing fingers in both directions at ‘cheats’].

Of course, looked at from the broad historical perspective things like calculus may well have been in the air, but the concern of many contemporary companies is the business of innovation. It cannot be left to chance that creations that can change the world, earn money, outwit or out-step the competition or change the game are going to emerge without effort, plucked from the air. The challenge then is to configure organisations in ways which create the right cocktail of talents and perspectives that allow the air to be thick with innovations of value.

Gladwell uses the IV example to great effect. He describes the heady mix of biologists and physicists, coming together in ways that are novel. Typcially, “the only time a physicist and a brain surgeon  meet is when the physicist is about to be cut open” but:

“surgeons ha[ve] all kinds of problems that they d[on’t] realize ha[ve] solutions, and physicists ha[ve] all kinds of solutions to things that they [on’t] realize are problems”.

People looking at the same problem, from a different perspective, can reach new heights. Obvious enough of course but disciplinary silos don’t always take that truism to heart.

“Casey Tegreene had a law degree, Lowell Wood had spent his career
dreaming up weapons for the government, Nathan Myhrvold was a ball of fire,
Edward Jung had walked across Texas. They had different backgrounds and
temperaments and perspectives, and if you gave them something to think about
that they did not ordinarily think about—like hurricanes, or jet engines, or
metastatic cancer—you were guaranteed a fresh set of eyes”.

Of course, these people are smart. Seriously smart. But the point is that you don’t need a genius in the room to make the alchemy happen. You need the right collection of smart, and different individuals. As Robert Merton wrote in his famous essay in scientific discovery, to quote Gladwell:

“scientific genius is not a person who does what no one else can do; he
or she is someone who does what it takes many others to do. The genius is not a
unique source of insight; he is merely an efficient source of insight”.

Geniuses get to where most mortals, working with the right other mere mortals, will get to eventually. They just get there alone. Quicker. Gladwell is, of course right to point out that this general argument is not true for artistic geniuses. No collection of indivuals could compose Don Giovanni).

The inherent value of talent people mixed together to good effect is one example in the HBR piece by Iyer and Davenport – Reverse Engineering Google’s Innovation Machine. Google’s noted recruitment policy, right from the get-go, was to hire people smarter than those who were recruiting them. This fundamental bravery has, it seems, attracted ever smarter people. As, as Iyer and Davenport detail in their article, Google has built a culture that is “built to build” – supporting employees’ desire to learn, expand their horizons and collaborate freely. Cohen picks up on the same themes – especially with regard to hiring smart people than those already in the business, and ensuring that the opportunity is taken, when staff leave, to eapfrog by hiring people with more extensive or appropriate skills and
experiences.

Interestingly, in light of recent press coverage about one of Britain’s most famous inventors, he is critical of Clive Sinclair’s individualist approach to his work. To quote:

“Clive Sinclair tried to do everything himself. In addition, he insisted
on the infallibility of his own personal reading of the market. He wanted to
revolutionise the car industry with his diminutive C5 car. He thought he could
do it because he believed he was the man who could revolutionise everything…The
ones who failed tried to do everything themselves
(The Second Bounce of the
Ball pg. 193).

Of course, none of this is to say that talented individuals can’t and haven’t changed the face of history. Nor is it to argue for an organisational form of innovation by committee. However, it is a reminder that the idea of the lone genius is a cultural construction. (How bored are you of hearing the Jonathan Ives ‘invented’ the iPod or that Foster or Rogers’ ‘designed’ this or that….what, all by themselves???)

So, where do the eggs come into it? Well, Myhrvold hunts for dinosaur fossils and one recent find of his was a nest of oviraptor eggs. In that nest were 32 eggs. Despite their size, dinosaurs seemed to recognise the importance of not putting just one egg in the basket. Instead, they actively sought to create larger teams.

The point that these various authors are making, in their different ways, is an important one, that helps us counter prevailing myths of individual genius. Teams are good. The challenge for any organisation is to assemble and then support mixed teams of talent individuals.