Individuals don’t make great companies, teams do

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“Individuals don’t make great companies, teams do” – Mark Suster General Partner, GRP Partners

Throughout the course of human history, many significant achievements and innovations have been marked with the heroic triumph of outstanding individuals. Edison, Alexander Graham Bell or Alexander Fleming; such household names have been the hallmarks of invention and innovation that usher in the age of progress. The destiny and achievements of our civilizations, in a large part of history, rest upon shoulder of these giants and the sparks of genius they provided.

 

In the modern times, with the advent of novel technologies that transformed our planet into a wired globe there have been important paradigm shifts from this point of view on innovation. Progress and innovation nowadays come from the efforts of major companies which combine technical expertise and undying entrepreneurial spirits. Google, Facebook, Microsoft or Apple becomes the new household names and the new pillars of innovation for our age. Day by day we could witness new products and services that transform our modes of communication, reestablish our ways of learning and obtaining information as well as redefine the limits of our progress: Google Glass, Google driver-less car, Facebook Graph Search. These new-fangled achievements come about not as the result of a single creative genius, but rather as the fruition of collaboration between highly motivated and talented individuals who could provide a kaleidoscope of perspectives on the most pressing issues and problems in our society.

 

However, even in those companies which are the models of collaboration, there needs to be an enduring presence of leading figures who become pioneers in mapping the course of development and innovation. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg established themselves as the mediator between technical progress and their impact on society; they became the new giants who helped transform knowledge into tangible progress in our lives. Without these figures who spearheaded the company into specific directions, Microsoft, Apple or Facebook could only be an amalgam of people rather than a collective force for progress. They were the people who could expend their expertise in a diverse spectrum of technological and entrepreneurial arenas and bring about visible changes to the face of both the companies and the results they produce.

 

In view of such a diverse perspectives on the success of companies in the modern world, we may have to ask ourselves again and again: What is more vital to success and innovation? Teams or individuals? Perhaps it could be more helpful to approach this conundrum from a different angle. Teams are not distinct from individuals: they are the composition of highly-talented people who come together with a common goal of achieving progress, yet they still remain unique with their own experiences and perspectives. A team could only be functional if the members retain their ’uniqueness’ and supply their inputs in dealing with specific problems. Steve Jobs had already acknowledged the importance of retaining individuality within a team of workers via his comments regarding Apple’s products and their success: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices.” His comments indeed provided us with important insights on the recipe for success of companies in the modern world. Success in the entrepreneurial world, nowadays, does not come about as the result of a monolithic line of thought emphasizing merely technical expertise; rather, it comes about as the resonance of distinct people with different endeavors who pay respect to alternative perspectives in solving the multifaceted problems we have to face in our path of progress.

 

Hence, what are the possible examples and lessons that newly-minted startup enthusiasts could learn from this discussion of teams and individuals in entrepreneurial success? Perhaps we need to look at the novel forms of collaborative innovation for a possible model of successful cooperation. Innocentive.com is a prime example where innovation comes about through the collaboration of distinctive individuals. In this platform for scientific problem solving and innovation, experts from diverse fields could collaborate in online project rooms to discuss and utilize their expertise in resolving the most pressing issues in science. A research on the site even mentions that the further the focal problem was from the solvers’ field of expertise, the more likely they were to solve it. Furthermore, there was a 10% increase in the probability of being a winning solver if the problem was assessed to be completely outside their field of expertise.[1] This finding implies that a respect for alternative perspectives is vital in ensuring the success of a collaborative enterprise. Another example comes from the Earth Team, a group of entrepreneurs in Northwestern University which have succeeded in resolving a myriad of social challenges. They are composed of ‘an eclectic group of four Northwestern PhD students who aim to apply their varied knowledge and expertise in different academic disciplines to help solve real-world humanitarian and environmental issues’[2], and while the four Earth Team members enjoy different backgrounds and academic passions, they are united by their shared desire to apply their knowledge and experience to improving the circumstances facing the world’s poorest people.”[3]. The combination of talent, respect and dedication towards the common goal of each individual, perhaps is another key indicator for success of a group towards achieving innovation in the modern context.



[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/InnoCentive

[2] http://www.toanphan.org/press.html

[3] http://www.toanphan.org/press.html

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