By Adam Feuer
Something is known about how people become individually great. Richard Hamming gave a famous talk on that subject, You and Your Research. While his talk was about the problem of individual greatness, he acknowledged that groups or teams also have the potential to become great. This essay is about how to reliably produce great teams.
Before we dive in, let’s talk about why reliably producing great teams is important. I will mention some problems in the world that are important to solve: ecological devastation, poverty, war, disease, and the meta-problem: the survival of our species. Just working harder is not going to solve these problems – people have been doing that for thousands of years without success.
If you look at the most difficult problems facing humanity, I think it is self-evident that if there were an abundant number of geniuses working on these problems, they could be solved. If you study the work of applied genius throughout history, you can see this is true.
So why haven’t all the problems been solved already? This is the Problem of Problems. Genius is scarce in the world today – there are a small number of geniuses in each generation. That’s too few to solve all the significant problems we face now. My thesis is that solving these great problems requires the reliable creation of genius. In other words, we must be able to summon genius as needed instead of waiting for geniuses to be born and hoping they apply their gifts to the problems of the world.
Briefly, I’d like to cover what Hamming argued was required for individual greatness. He said you need:
- a great problem to solve,
- a desire to be great,
- personal sacrifice, and
- emotional investment in the problem.
If you don’t have these characteristics, you will not produce great work. Few of us make the choice to sacrifice, be great, and demonstrate courage, and most of us believe we have reasonable excuses for not doing so. Being great is a hard choice to make. Hamming’s talk explains why this is true, so I won’t cover it here.
Instead, let’s talk about team greatness. On a team, you still need a great problem to work on and the desire to be great. However, teams also need the willingness and ability to learn specific collaborative behaviors using proven technology. As a starting point, the team must base its behavior on what has worked in the past. The right behaviors make it much easier to access courage and emotional investment, and make less personal sacrifice necessary.
To illustrate these points, I’ll go over a few examples of works of genius that could not be accomplished by a single person, and indeed were not. These works were completed by teams.
Ending Slavery in the British Empire
By the 1700s, slavery had been an endemic part of human civilization for thousands of years, and the British Empire’s economy depended on slavery, as did the economy of many nations: worldwide, millions of people were enslaved. In 1785, a young Anglican priest named Thomas Clarkson decided that slavery must be ended, and formed a team composed of himself and a small group of Quakers. At the time, it was widely accepted that ending slavery would be impossible, yet the team quickly grew their membership and funding, and by 1789 had members all over England. In 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, banning slavery in the British Empire1
The British Empire was the first in history to eliminate slavery, and this achievement created the momentum needed to end legalized slavery around the world. The amount of happiness this accomplishment has brought to the world is incalculable. Furthermore, ending slavery brought economic productivity to the world, because economic productivity is linked to happiness.
Putting a Man on the Moon
As late as 1957, there were still respected scientists that believed that putting a man on the moon was an impossible goal. After John F. Kennedy’s 1961 speech, however, the team at NASA passionately attacked this goal. Like no team that came before, the NASA team produced a fast, steady stream of inventions and reliable engineering. By 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were photographed standing on the lunar surface. This achievement was an incredible technological feat and a source of economic innovation. Like the previous example, it was the result of multiple works of genius and could not have been accomplished by one person.2
Eradication of Smallpox
Smallpox had killed hundreds of millions of people since the dawn of human history, was killing two million people per year in the late 1950s, and was widely considered impossible to eliminate. In 1958 Viktor Zhdanov, Deputy Minister of Health for the USSR, called on the World Health Assembly to undertake a global initiative to eradicate smallpox. The proposal was accepted in 1959. In 1967 the World Health Organization formed and funded a Smallpox Eradication Unit led by D.A. Henderson. This team effectively recruited health organizations in most developing nations. By 1973 the smallpox vaccine was being produced primarily by the poor countries where the effect of the disease was worse. By 1980 it had been completely eliminated from the Earth. Again, this effort required teamwork and a constant flow of innovation from widely separated people and organizations, and could not have been accomplished by isolated individuals.3
Two common themes arise when studying the members of great teams. First, they believed that what they were going to attempt was possible and second, they felt personally responsible for achieving it. Hamming said you should be emotionally involved in the problem you are working on, and this is what I am talking about. People who are emotionally involved with a problem are constantly thinking about it: the vision of solving the problem resides not only in their minds, but also in their hearts.
Thomas Clarkson started his work to end slavery by entering an essay contest on the topic at Oxford.4 Unlike any of the other contestants, his heart’s purpose became linked to this issue. He won the essay contest, graduated, and shelved the essay. Soon, however, he was riding his horse to London to find a job and was overcome by emotion. He had to stop and sit by the road for hours thinking about the plight of the enslaved. At that moment, he decided that someone had to have the courage to see emancipation through to the end. When he realized there was nobody else who was going to solve the problem, he decided it was up to him. There is a marker between Oxford and London that pinpoints the spot where Clarkson had this world-changing insight. I think the site should be a great shrine, and one day I am personally going to visit it.
I don’t know how to convince you that you can achieve something great. That is up to you. But at least one person in your group has to believe the goal is achievable.
If you are going to work toward an achievement that requires team greatness, here are the characteristics that your team will need.
First, if you don’t have a shared vision, you won’t be able to aggregate the greatness of individuals, because their effort will be going in different directions. Also, a team shared vision is crucial in creating the secure feeling of not being alone. Feeling that you have your team beside you makes it much more likely you will act with wisdom and courage. Another benefit of a true shared vision is that it incorporates the individual personal visions of each team member; this allows each team member to engage fully. We won’t cover how to create a shared vision here, but there is team technology that helps teams create and stay in a state of shared vision, like the Core Protocols. Finally, you must be able to trust that each subteam will act in alignment with every other subteam: Without this level of trust, your team cannot handle the scale necessary to solve large problems. Shared vision enables trust among the various subteams on a large team.
Rational behavior must be the norm to create and maintain a great team. Rationality is not the elimination of emotion, but rather is the mature use of emotional and intellectual information. Rational behavior requires self-awareness; self-awareness at the individual level and self-awareness at the team level. The individual and team must be able to discern rationality from irrationality in order to achieve greatness. This is because correct judgment of what is rational and irrational allows the team to make results-oriented course corrections. Rational behavior also means that team members take good care of themselves. Genius requires creativity, not harder work, and if you aren’t in good health, you can’t be creative. And lastly, rational behavior is required for carrying out long-range plans.
The Apollo team faced a major problem in their effort to get to the moon within a decade – the prevailing plan, advocated by Werner von Braun, was to go straight to the moon without orbiting it first. This was called the "Direct Ascent" scenario. In this scenario, the velocity of the moon landing craft would be very high, requiring more fuel and more spaceship than the Saturn V rockets could carry. A new, much larger "Nova" or Saturn-8 class of rocket would be required.
The problem with this scenario was that it would take too long to develop the Nova-class rockets. Once the Direct Ascent scenario was well under way, a NASA subteam realized that they would not meet their goal if they went ahead with this plan. An alternate plan was developed, called "Lunar Orbit Rendezvous," (LOR) that could be executed with Saturn V rockets in the time required.
Von Braun headed NASA’s Apollo rocket program and was a powerful figure. Many people in NASA did not want to be in conflict with von Braun and his team over his preferred plan. However, the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous team had the courage to develop their plan and present it to von Braun’s team. At that meeting rationality prevailed – even though they were afraid, the LOR team made a great presentation, and even though it threatened their current plan, von Braun’s team considered the new information. After the meeting, von Braun and his team decided to change the plan. Lunar Orbit Rendezvous was the plan that landed men on the moon.5 Rationality enabled the NASA teams to do the right thing even though they were afraid. Consistent use of rationality enables teams to systematically pursue their goals.
Asking For Help
The way to aggregate the great qualities of various team members is to maximize the amount and quality of asking for help. On a great team, asking for help is low-cost and effortless. When you ask for help, you have access to the talents and energy of others in service of the larger goal and they have access to yours.
When Clarkson got to London he wondered who would be willing to believe in the possibility of ending slavery. He was an Anglican priest, but he knew the only people likely to believe in his dream were the Quakers. He immediately sought them out, and soon he was working toward his vision with a small group of Quaker friends who put their resources behind him. Clarkson then visited many other Quakers in London and secured their support and donations. Next, he toured England and launched clubs devoted to the cause. Women got involved in these anti-slavery clubs, and, within the decade, there were women’s groups throughout England. Clarkson wasn’t shy about asking for help. Because he was willing to constantly ask for effective help, he and his team were able to invent community organizing.
The best ideas need to win every time, regardless of who thought of them. I shouldn’t have to say this because it is a subset of rational behavior, but I want to underline its importance. This is something a team has to monitor in its own behavior. Frequently in under-performing teams everyone knows what the best idea is, but nobody is saying it or implementing it. Even if you uncover the best ideas on your team, how do you get the group to use those ideas? There are known ways to do this.
In the case of the Smallpox Eradication Unit, after the eradication effort started, it was widely believed that vaccination alone would lead to success. The team soon learned that focusing on vaccination would not eliminate smallpox because disease outbreaks could quickly overwhelm their efforts. In response, they developed a new strategy based on surveillance and containment, supplemented by vaccines. They had to break organizational rules, ignore hierarchy, and circumvent governments’ huge investment in vaccination to get their program to succeed.6,7
Often the best idea isn’t good enough. What do you do then? There are techniques that allow people to easily combine or improve ideas to make better ones. This is a subset of asking for help. Perfecting ideas is about helping others in the most effective way possible, so they can receive suggestions to make their idea better, and act on them without resistance. Multiple rounds of perfection lead to rapid improvement in strategies, tools, and techniques.
True genius doesn’t just produce great ideas, but also produces a continuous flow of good work that leads rapidly toward the goal. This is an area in which teams excel over individuals. If a team works efficiently, they can produce more output than an individual. This is something a team has to monitor, and technology exists that allows this.
All three teams covered here used perfection extensively to deliver frequent new iterations of their perfected products. Clarkson’s team used it many times to combine a focus on grassroots members, touring speakers, personal appeals, the invention of the logo, graphic design, and new organizational structures to form community organizing. Henderson’s Smallpox Eradication Unit took its surveillance-containment strategy and quickly refined its program to include mass-produced freeze-dried vaccines, jet injectors, bifurcated needles, and highly-optimized staff training, all of which were needed to implement the eradication. The Apollo team spent many iterations improving the design of the mission and the actual spacecraft used in the project, improving safety, solving engineering problems, and producing spaceships and machines.
Now I’d like to talk about two other terms that relate to great teams.
A multiperson 8 is a team of individuals that has the characteristics listed above. It can reliably produce results equal to or exceeding that of individual geniuses. It’s clear that there have been multipersons in the past such as the teams mentioned above, but it isn’t well-known how to produce them or even well-accepted that they should be produced. They are not common in our world today.
I am calling for the creation of these multipersons. In fact, I want this to be a standard technique that is used to solve any large problem.
There are technologies that lead to the characteristics outlined above, some better than others. Clarkson and his team invented community organizing and mass movements. The Smallpox Eradication Unit used the scientific method and systematic team training. The Apollo team pioneered using technical innovation to solve problems. If you look at these groups, one of the patterns you will notice is that they were all started by a handful of people who launched projects that would shape the world. Somehow they landed on behaviors that enabled their success. But can we repeat their achievements? Until recently, achieving team greatness has been haphazard and difficult.
There is a system that allows you to create great teams reliably instead of waiting on chance or a great person to be born. The system is called the Core Protocols and it came out of the world of software development. It’s a set of methods and behaviors that allow groups to reliably attain the characteristics of great teams. The Core Protocols are described elsewhere, so I won’t describe them here. In the future there will likely be other tools and techniques for doing the same thing – I’m not advocating for a particular tool, but only that you use something that actually gets results. Use it, test it, improve it, and if it doesn’t give you what you need, find something else or combine methods to find a solution that works. But base your decisions on data.
So, what can you do to help? The first thing is to believe that summoning genius is possible. Maybe you already do; then you have a head start. Or maybe you’ll have to figure out how to believe in it. Regardless, seek the characteristics I list above, and do the following:
- Form a team,
- Use the best team technology,
- Coordinate with other teams, and
- Deliver great results.
And now you know how to be great. Therefore, go forth and create a great team!
Thanks to Lena McCullough for suggesting the structure of this essay; Michele McCarthy for her help editing this essay; and Jim McCarthy for coining the phrase "Problem of Problems".
- Bury The Chains by Adam Hochschild
- Apollo Program on Wikipedia
- Smallpox on Wikipedia
- Thomas Clarkson on Wikipedia
- Apollo by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox
- Smallpox Eradication: Combining Technological and Strategical Innovation at TechNet21
- Smallpox- the Death of a Disease: The Inside Story of Eradicating a Worldwide Killer by D.A. Henderson
- Software For Your Head by Jim and Michele McCarthy