The Problem with Teamwork

At last!  Somebody has come out and said it.  Teamwork is a very valuable thing, but it’s not the only thing.  It has its place.  Unfortunately, these days, teamwork is completely replacing the lone genius.   They’re being run out of town and discredited.  As a species, they’re under threat.   What’s a lone genius to do?

Here’s the article that piqued my interest:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/opinion/sunday/the-rise-of-the-new-groupthink.html?pagewanted=all

I think we have, for far too long, criminally undervalued the contribution and wealth creation potential of the inspired, lone “nutter”.  Note they only became “nutters”, in the common parlance, because of the tide of quasi-fascistic adherence to the popular dogma that the only great achievements are the result of teamwork and collaboration.  It isn’t true.  Sometimes, the coherent, creative vision comes from a single imagination and is the result of focused concentration or playful, self-directed enquiry, over a considerable period of time.

How is forcing somebody that creates best on their own into a false bonhomie and contrived team structure, consisting of committees of people that just don’t “get it” any different to bullying the creative person?  How is it not just another branch of political correctness, over-zealously applied?  I’m on record in this blog for being an advocate of collaboration when that is the appropriate solution.  However, I truly believe that we have begun to disregard and disrespect the fruits of solitude and a brilliant mind working in silent contemplation.

We’ve become wedded to frenzy, to ceaseless stand up meetings, to over-communicating, to feeling like everyone has to be treated as if they have an equal grasp of the subject matter, even when the subject matter is deeply technical and requires dedication, experience and training to even comprehend it, let alone shape and use in innovative and creative ways.  We know that some offices think nothing of constant background noise and chatter, interruptions over trivia and requiring everybody to pitch in to order the printer cartridges, but we pay a heavy price for it.  Those that really do require some quiet and uninterrupted focus to do their best work don’t get to do it.  Imagine how frustrating it must feel for those people.  Why are their needs, as human beings, subservient to the group’s need to feel involved, regardless of the inadequate quality, depth or relevance of their sometimes ludicrous contributions?

I know some people that are what I would call geniuses.  They’re genuinely smart people that live in an internal world of their own imagining, where amazing ideas about their specialist field are constantly being examined, evaluated, manipulated, played with and discovered.  This is where so much innovation really happens: inside people’s heads.  They are not particularly well paid and they certainly aren’t considered to be key assets of the organisations they work for.  They are, rather, mistrusted for their solitude, considered “unmanageable” and more often than not, subject to the arbitrary performance management techniques (which is another way of saying making their working life so awful, they choose to leave of their own accord) beloved of so many corporations, because these people have done nothing more than committed the supposed cardinal sin of not being seen to be team players.

The irony is that many of these people are extroverts, not introverts, so they really like people.  They like working with them.  They are gregarious by nature.  But they are also professional and they have learned, over their years of experience that the quality of the work they do suffers, unless they enforce a self-imposed, almost monastic rigour to their daily routine.  It’s a kind of self discipline.  The best software coders, for example, know that they can’t write good code in a call centre and as much as they enjoy the water cooler banter, the terrible jokes and well-meaning office gossip, if they care about the software product they are constructing and its quality, they necessarily become aloof and bow out of office politics all together.  Their professional ethics leaves them no choice.

The worst indignity for these lone geniuses is to push their ideas through, against the odds, to the brink of success, at which point everyone else on “the team” feels a full entitlement to claim credit.  Often, this means real money.  I’ve seen patent applications submitted including a cast of thousands as inventors, when some of these people didn’t even work for the organisation, when the invention first emerged.  That just isn’t fair.  It’s free-loading.

Corporate life has forgotten that Hollywood has Directors for a reason.  J.K. Rowling didn’t write her books by committee.  The great medieval master artists may have had teams of apprentices, but it was their sole creative vision that was being realised.  Leadership is not simply about helping a team of followers do their best work.  Sometimes, leadership is about going it alone and thinking it all through in quiet.  Sometimes the best and wisest thing a leader can do is go away, think hard and come back with something truly brilliant Why do we not trust these leaders?

The thing about creativity and innovation is that the best ideas also come from the heart, not just the head.  They are the result of somebody caring passionately about the field of enquiry in question.  Not only are they passionate about it, they live, eat, sleep and breathe it.  They have valuable ideas about what they care about because they love it, as well as live it.  They cannot be any different.

How, then, is the person with so much passion for their subject matter supposed to interact with a person that doesn’t particularly care about the finer details, may well have different interests or just doesn’t care about anything very much, other than getting paid and climbing the greasy corporate pole?  It’s a bit like taking a world famous tenor to a karaoke night and claiming that everybody’s singing was of an equal standard.

Isn’t it about time we stopped insulting our geniuses and ceased metaphorically slapping them in the face?  There’s a balance to be struck between interaction and solitude and we’re consistently getting that balance wrong.  If we redressed the balance, we’d all be the richer for it, you know.

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About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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