In Western society, we love stories of lone inventors. We tell stories of the persistence of key individuals like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. We trot out stories of people in business like Steve Jobs and James Dyson.

There is no doubt that individuals can provide a catalyst for real innovation. In business, invention, and science, there are clearly people who consistently find themselves at the center of the action. Finding those people and nurturing them is an important part of maintaining a culture of innovation.

At the same time, it is a mistake to assume that innovation is done by individuals working alone. Thomas Edison was instrumental to creating many innovations, but he had a large lab. Steve Jobs succeeded in large part because he got the people who worked for him to share a vision of the future and to work toward it.

Science is a great place to look at innovation at work.

Pick up a research journal in almost any field of science or engineering from psychology to physics to electrical engineering. Very few of those papers are written by a single author. Indeed, most research articles are co-authored by a team. There are several reasons for this team effort.

Good ideas involve cross-pollination

One big reason why teams are involved in the best research is that many of the core innovation problems that have to be solved in science and beyond are systems-level problems. That is, the problems require understanding complex interactions among factors rather than the overall influence of one or even two factors.

That means that solving these problems requires individuals with deep expertise across different areas who are willing to work together to pool their knowledge to go beyond the kinds of solutions to problems that have been attempted in the past.

In addition, groups often learn about the problem they are trying to solve by drawing analogies from one area of expertise to another. Kevin Dunbar and his colleagues have studied microbiologists in action. They find that microbiologists often find parallels between mechanisms in one bacterium and mechanisms in another. Using these analogies productively requires teams that have enough expertise in each area to understand the implications of these similarities.

Discussion pushes boundaries

A second key reason why teams are critical for innovation is that the process of discussion enhances the ideas that are developed. Often, people assume that great ideas happen in a flash of insight. Kekule is said to have discovered the structure of the benzene ring in a vision of a snake biting its tail.

As Robert Weisberg discusses, though, many of these stories are actually myths. Great ideas do not emerge fully formed from brains in a flash of insight. That "aha" moment usually reflects a breakthrough in which someone makes progress on a problem they are trying to solve. But, a real solution takes a lot of work after that.

Discussion pushes that work forward by giving a group of people an opportunity to push on the ideas and improve them. It is best when the people working together have respect for one another, but do not typically agree in their interpretations. These disagreements reflect places where ideas need to be refined and so they push members of a group to expand on initial insights.

Ideas are cheap

Finally, teams are crucial, because ideas are cheap. There are lots of great ideas out there. What separates creative genius from true innovation is effort. In science, experiments need to be done to test predictions that come from theories. These experiments are time-consuming. They require the development of methods (and sometimes even devices) to take measurements. They require people to actually make those observations.

Analysis of data is a crucial skill as well. Many non-scientists assume that analyzing data requires primarily mathematical expertise. However, data analysis is a complex task that involves exploring how the data relate to the hypotheses. Often, the world works differently than scientists initially assumed it did, and so there is a tremendous amount of discovery that happens in the process of examining the data. So, the entire team is engaged in understanding what happened in a study.

Even in practical problems, things rarely go as anticipated when something is implemented. One reason why software goes through so many versions is that teams learn more about how products are used by releasing them into the world and then exploring what people actually do with them. That leads to ideas for expansions that become part of a new release.

Learn to play team sports

It turns out that we do a poor job at training people to work in teams, despite the importance of group work for success. Much of people's education through the end of college is an individual sport. Students are asked to complete assignments for individual grades.

That structure is valuable in many ways. It ensures individual accountability for work. It helps educators to assess the knowledge and skills of each individual student.

But, working as a team is also a skill. And the measure of success of a group effort is partly whether the group succeeded at the task it was given. Because we are so focused on individual achievement in school, though, we are reluctant to allow our grades to be based on the success of a team. As a result, few people get much practice working together on complex projects before they get into the workforce.

That means that we also need to add more teamwork into the way we teach people. A crucial part of people's education should be learning about how to find other people who have the expertise they need to complete a project and then structuring that group to make progress.

Published on: Jan 25, 2017