One of the most persisting myths in modern business, arts and culture is the myth of the lonely genius expert. The special someone, who can make it all happen!
However, both dancing and my career experience has taught me that the whole is always better than the sum of its parts.
Cuban Salsa is more than a dance. It is a social event. One of its fundamental principles is changing partners and dancing with everyone in the group. Every pair of dancers comprises of a leader and a follower, who constantly move in circular patterns and turns. The circular motion allows them to connect with other couples, forming circles of multiple couples. The circles of dancers can expand to hundreds of people, who all dance in synch without any predetermined choreography. Coordination happens through a “singer” who calls the steps for the group to perform.
In Cuba in the 1950’s, this type of group dancing was named Rueda de Casino, which literally means Casino Wheel. The popularity of Rueda only grew with time with whole communities and villages in Cuba coming together to dance. In the 1980’s, Salsa Rueda gained global popularity, and nowadays there are many established Rueda events, festivals and competitions across the world.
However, the myth of the individual genius expert still persists.
The Persisting Expert Myth
From religion to science and history, we love attributing the biggest successes, inventions, ideas and accomplishments to larger than life experts. To people who have been described as once-in-a-generation geniuses. But how true that is?
In reality, most great accomplishments, ideas and insights are usually the aggregation of multiple people’s insights and ideas across space and time. Not the work of a God-like Genius Expert.
“If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”Sir Isaac Newton
Yes, there are some extremely smart and unique individuals that can see things that others cannot. But regardless of how smart they are, they cannot outcompete with a diverse group of knowledgeable people.
Why Experts See Themselves As Great
The reality is that if we ask anyone on how they see themselves, the most common answer would be that they think they are above average. Although, we are all special in our own way, this doesn’t mean that we should regard ourselves as geniuses.
According to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, people tend to think that they are smarter than everyone else. They tend to overestimate what they know, and usually think they are more competent than others. Through my experience working with product teams, I have come across individuals that think they are unique, know more than others, and somehow are “special”. As such, they take on challenging tasks alone, while showing no interest in connecting or communicating with others. They are rigid in their ways of working, do not share any knowledge, have mood swings, and expect everyone else to accommodate them.
Interestingly enough, many of these “special” experts, are people that have spent many years within a business, building their own reputation and making themselves essential. Over time, they develop an antisocial approach, and reject any views that don’t match with their preconceived ideas or threatens their status. Despite their behaviour, they are tolerated in businesses while their behaviour is attributed to their genius expertise.
Unfortunately, there are three false assumptions that perpetuate the myth of the genius expert.
- Suffering leads to creativity
- Innovation comes from lonely, antisocial geniuses
- Businesses need to find, pamper and rely on 1 or 2 talented individuals.
Myth 1: Suffering Leads to Creativity
There is definitely an almost romantic stereotype of the tortured genius, based on certain famous historical figures, who were either suicidal or addicted to drugs and alcohol while producing great pieces of work. Although, this might be true to an extent, it is not a hard and fast rule. Suffering doesn’t lead to creativity, neither creative people are doomed to suffer.
We need to take into consideration the context of the era that these geniuses lived in. For instance, Dostoyevsky lived in the troubled political and social atmosphere of 19th century Russia. This significantly affected his experience, outlook of life, and as a consequence his work. Additionally, there were periods, such as the 1960’s, when being antisocial was considered a necessary trait for creative art students. Unfortunately, due to their antisocial behaviour, there was no-one left to support them or buy their work when this trend finished. As a result they disappeared into obscurity.
On the other hand, the great painter Picasso, although a bohemian, lived an exciting social life in Paris. He enjoyed the company of other artists while he was a well-known womaniser. Despite going through many different phases, good and bad, he consistently produced masterpieces throughout his life.
How Suffering Hinder Expert Creativity
There is academic research showing that creativity and innovation is achieved when an expert is fully absorbed on their work. However, when artists go through personal tragedies, it is much harder to concentrate and produce their best work. However, this doesn’t mean that personal tragedies are always a distraction. Sometimes they may help someone focus and even find their purpose in life more than ever before. But this can happen only after they overcome their issues and are able to lose themselves in their work.
The Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, talks about the concept of psychic entropy. When someone is alone, not interacting socially, anxious, sad or just bored, it is not possible to achieve an active state of flow and be creative. First they need to overcome what is bothering them before they are able to focus on an activity that excites them.
Therefore, what matters is not the suffering itself but how much interest and focus someone has on what they are doing. Some find that difficult life issues inspire them. But this is not sustainable in the long term. It can only act as a spark for change.
Myth 2: Innovation Comes From Lonely Antisocial Experts
Dr Henrich, Professor at Harvard University in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, shows that it is not the innate brain power or our specialised mental abilities that matter. Instead, it is our collective intelligence and our ability to learn from each other in a social context.
In his book, he compares a group of “Geniuses” with a group of “Networkers”. The “Geniuses” have bigger brains and can innovate through personal effort and imagination. On the other hand, the “Networkers: are more social and rely on each other to innovate. By running a simple mental experiment, Dr Henrich shows that the “Networkers” always outperform the “Geniuses”, due to the aggregating effect of building from each other’s ideas.
In other words, being antisocial can be a significant obstacle to innovation, no matter how smart someone is.
If you want to have cool technology, it is better to be social than smart.Professor Joseph Henrich
In the West people tend to idolise individuals, when compared to Asian cultures that are more group-oriented. For instance, many people often think of the great inventor Thomas Edison as a lonely genius. Although, this might be true for some of his inventions, in reality Thomas Edison had a team of at least 30 assistants working on the lightbulb.
In addition, over the years he created many companies that employed thousands of people. He was also one of the first that promoted and established teamwork with other researchers as part of his invention process. Therefore, his inventions, were more the inventions of a collective intelligence rather than of his pure individual genius.
Cognitive Diversity And Expertise
Although we may not realise it, the world today is far more complex than it was 30-40 years ago. In the 1980’s it would only take a handful of countries and suppliers to fully design and manufacture a commercial aircraft. While now it takes tens of thousands of people from more than 100 nations across the globe.
When dealing with complex technical or social problems, it is not possible for one person to have all the answers. This can only be achieved by bringing together people with a more diverse pool of knowledge, skills, life experiences, education, perspectives and expertise.
An Italian growing up in Rome, a Greek that went to school in Athens, a French living in London and a British from Southampton, all ‘see’ the world through different eyes. But when they come together, they collectively create a palette of experiences, skills and knowledge that is of unparalleled intelligence. Their different perspectives not only complement each other but create a healthy tension of views that lead to improved group intelligence and wisdom.
The author Matthew Syed in his book Rebel Ideas, characterises these type of teams as “Teams of Rebels“, due to the “revolutionary” ideas they bring. However, creating a diverse group is not as straightforward as it sounds. As humans, we tend to surround ourselves with people that are like us because it makes us feel comfortable. This creates an unintelligent team. Matthew Syed calls this type of team, “Team of Clones“, where despite their intelligence, everyone has the same frame of reference and similar blind spots.
When dealing with complex challenges, no individual genius can compete with a diverse group of people. Collectively, the diverse group has richer information and a more intelligent brain.
Myth 3: Businesses Need to Rely on Individual Experts
The stereotype of the special someone is used quite too often by people that are more interested in making themselves indispensable rather than helping the business.
In the Phoenix Project, Gene Kim has captured this stereotype in a character called Brent, who is the go-to expert for every IT issue in the business, and who is always multi-tasking on competing issues. However, as it becomes apparent in reality the real issue is him.
This over-reliance on individuals was a common phenomenon for many IT organisations. Legacy systems used to be complex, monolithic, and with entangled architecture. As a result, there would only be a handful of experts, who really knew how they could maintain them. These people were like knowledge black boxes and businesses would pay any price to hold on to them. This created a strange symbiotic relationship with many of these individuals becoming arrogant, and even anti-social, fitting perfectly the tortured genius stereotype.
Since 2000, more and more businesses have started adopting DevOps and Agile ways of working, shifting their focus from individuals to teams. Knowledge is not anymore the privilege of the odd expert, but it lives, and evolves among the minds of hundreds of people within the business, creating an open, flexible and evolving learning organisation.
Dancing with others
From ancient philosophy and Aristotle to Systems Theory, and from Sports, Culture, and Arts to Science, one concept is clear.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.Aristotle
There seems to be a human need to produce something bigger as a whole than any individual could ever achieve on their own. Creativity and Innovation is not for lonely, self-distractive, and arrogant geniuses that live in their basement. It is a largely social, democratic, and inclusive activity.
In dancing, social events like Rueda de Casino demonstrates this in a very beautiful and fun way. As mentioned earlier, there is something unexpected and beautiful when people dance together in a circle. There are no bottlenecks or assymetries. Everyone is in constant motion and flow, like in a spinning wheel (Rueda). No one is more important than their partner, regardless of their expertise. Everyone has to contribute and in coordination with each other. The group is as diverse as it can be, and yet the whole system works in harmony. In such a situation, the possibilities to move, adapt and evolve are endless.