Teamwork Not Genius

Houston, we have a problem.

For years the legal profession has encouraged individual excellence and rewarded individual productivity.  In fact, we’ve come to admire those outstanding lawyers who define the best of the legal profession.  Every firm has its legendary lawyer — the person who defied odds to win an unwinnable case or found a solution to a seemingly intractable corporate problem.   We may even believe that some of these men (and they almost always were men back in the day) were geniuses. And so we aspire to be brilliant, just like them.

But what happens when the challenges are too big for one person to handle alone? While he doesn’t mean to diminish in any way the accomplishment represented by the theory of gravity or the theory of evolution, Jonah Lehrer reports that things are more challenging now than they were in the times of Newton and Darwin:

…our modern problems have gotten so hard – so damn intractable, complicated and multi-disciplinary – that we can no longer solve them by ourselves. … But the complexity of our 21st century problems (clean coal, hydrogen cars, everything in neuroscience, string theory, etc.) has not just led to a postponement in peak creativity. It has also lessened the importance of the individual. …teams have become a far more important part of intellectual production.

…the era of the lone genius is coming to an end. If our current lists of global thinkers seem paltry, it’s because the best thinkers no longer exist by themselves, toiling away in a vacuum. Instead, they require the constant feedback and knowledge of others. We live in a world of such complexity that our problems increasingly exceed the possibilities of the individual mind. Collaboration is no longer an option.

And here we find our problem.  If the path to innovation and progress lies in teamwork and collaboration, what are lawyers going to do?  Psychological studies of lawyers indicate that they score low with respect to the personality traits most useful for harmonious and productive teamwork.  Furthermore, Lehrer describes the best environment for innovation as one with constant feedback, knowledge sharing and transparency.  Does this sound like your law firm?

As I said earlier, Houston — we have a problem.

[Photo Credit: MsAnthea]


How Failure Leads to Epiphany

Jonah Lehrer has written a thought-provoking piece on why we too often miss the great opportunities presented by failure. In Accept Defeat:  The Neuroscience of Screwing Up, he explains how our brains purport to “help” us by screening out information that doesn’t fit with what we believe we know.  Here’s how he describes it:

The reason we’re so resistant to anomalous information — the real reason researchers automatically assume that every unexpected result is a stupid mistake — is rooted in the way the human brain works. Over the past few decades, psychologists have dismantled the myth of objectivity. The fact is, we carefully edit our reality, searching for evidence that confirms what we already believe. Although we pretend we’re empiricists — our views dictated by nothing but the facts — we’re actually blinkered, especially when it comes to information that contradicts our theories. The problem with science, then, isn’t that most experiments fail — it’s that most failures are ignored.

Ignoring failure can occasionally be a sanity-preserving, efficiency-enhancing approach to life.  However, when we ignore repeated failure, we may in fact be ignoring the only feasible explanation on the horizon.  Realizing this and acting on it requires strength of mind, openness, and a certain measure of humility.  It requires a true empiricist’s approach to life.

So how do we turn perceived failure around?  How do we find an epiphany amongst the rubble of unwanted test results?  Jonah Lehrer has the the following advice:

Check Your Assumptions: Ask yourself why this result feels like a failure. What theory does it contradict? Maybe the hypothesis failed, not the experiment.

Seek Out the Ignorant: Talk to people who are unfamiliar with your experiment. Explaining your work in simple terms may help you see it in a new light.

Encourage Diversity: If everyone working on a problem speaks the same language, then everyone has the same set of assumptions.

Beware of Failure-Blindness: It’s normal to filter out information that contradicts our preconceptions. The only way to avoid that bias is to be aware of it.

When it comes to implementing Enterprise 2.0 tools, there’s no substitute for constant experimentation.  And, there’s no way to avoid disappointments as you struggle to find what works best in your organization.  That said, don’t be too quick to discard your apparent failures.  When viewed with an open mind, they may point the way to success.  By following Jonah Lehrer’s advice, you may be able to find a breakthrough — an Epiphany.


Here is some additional reading on Failure:

[Hat tip to Dan Pink for pointing out this article.]

[Photo Credit: wenzday01]