Quietly, over decades, working alone night after night in what is now Poland, Nicolaus Copernicus meticulously made astronomical observations that shattered humanity’s sense of our place in creation. The earth, he came to realize, is not the center of creation. The planets revolve around the sun. Copernicus knew how dangerous his idea was and shared it with only a few people. He feared the controversy that would ensue. He did not publish his findings until shortly before his death.
The heresy that the earth is not the center of creation almost was fatal for Galileo, who defended and refined the Copernican system. Galileo used a primitive telescope (a toy by today’s standards) to see details of the moon and moons of Jupiter. He, too, mostly worked alone.
Isaac Newton, who opened the way for a physics that helped create modern industry, managed to find time to design and build a new kind of telescope that used mirrors. You can still buy a Newtonian reflector telescope today.
Of course, we now know that we are an unimaginably tiny part of a vast cosmos. The latest estimate is that the number of stars is something like a one with 20 zeros after it. It’s billions of billions of billions. We can calculate a number like that, but we can’t really imagine it. We also know that rather than being created a little lower than the angels, we are part of evolution, a hominid that burst on the scene very recently. Pretty humiliating, all told.
But this entry isn’t about science or even about the shattering of humanity’s sense of the cosmos and our place in it. Today’s entry is about teams. You see, while Copernicus, Galileo and Newton were certainly part of a wider community of investigators, their critical work was done alone. Not only was it done alone, but much of it was done with simple instruments they built.
Now, let’s look at modern science. Look at where the cutting edge discoveries are being made. Today we have the the multibillion dollar Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the radio astronomy sites in Australia and South Africa. Modern science requires complex organizations of scientists and engineers. Modern medicine is the same—research is expensive and requires many people with an array of skills.
Or consider the Wright brothers and their first airplane. They designed it and built the whole thing piece by piece. They flew it. They knew every detail. Now think of the development of newer airliners like the Boeing 787. Development requires a complex organization and billions of dollars. Today no one knows everything about a new airplane; it is simply too complex.
We are at a new place in human social evolution. Today it is all about teams. Organizations succeed to the extent that they manage to harness the talent, creativity and energy of their people.
The implications of our new social environment go on and on.
Let’s start with education. How do we develop the skills to thrive in this new social environment? At the very least, I would think young people need to hone their ability to work in collaboration. Working as a group requires so many skills and high awareness—the ability to read others, to listen deeply, to know when to dive in and when to hold back, a sense of humor, etc. How do we teach all that?
A critical issue is the balance between what we do as individuals and what we do as members of teams. The importance of teams does not mean there is no place for individual creativity. Indeed, teams are much better at refining and testing ideas than at creating solutions. (Brainstorming is highly overrated—and modern research shows this.)
And then there is the matter of leadership and management. Leadership today is much less about squeezing more productivity and efficiency than about communicating a vision and assembling and nurturing teams. It’s about building trust. Often leadership is knowing when to get out of the way. That’s not easy.
The good news is that working as part of a high functioning team is exhilarating. Most of us have had an experience of working in a group that just clicked. Work becomes fun. There is something deep within most of us that longs to be part of something larger and loves to work hand in hand with others to attain a common goal.
We need to get a lot better at creating and nurturing teams.