Building teams that innovate – learning from history

I am reading “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks” Created the Digital Revolution.” I realized I didn’t know much about the early history of the digital age and have, so far, found it fascinating. I’m still only 25% into the book and am beginning to see a trend in how innovative teams that shaped the digital age were built.

1. Multi-disciplinary teams. Great technology breakthroughs were not made by a group of computer scientists working together. Instead, they involved groups of theoretical physicists, chemists and programmers who came together. This was the case in the creation of the early computers at University of Penn and in the case of the semiconductor at Bell Labs.

Bell Labs was a great example of a place that was simply bustling with innovative ideas. Its DNA was built on the fact that it kept exposing scientists to others with different expertise. Steve Jobs was so inspired by Bell Labs that he designed the Pixar headquarters (and, perhaps, Apple, too?) to mimic Bell Labs. At the Pixar headquarters, you are forced to bump into others from different parts of the organization at the large Atrium. It is, as Jobs described it, a place that “promoted promoted encounters and unplanned collaborations.”

2. An intersection of science and the arts. Ada Lovelace, John von Neumann, Steve Jobs were examples of people who brought together two seemingly unconnected disciplines. This is, in some ways, related to point 1 but still worth a separate call out. All 3 were credited with visionary thinking that shaped the digital age and, perhaps, it was only made possible by their position at that intersection.

3. Teams that combined individual genius and great team spirit. We like building tales of the individual inventor. But, great inventions were largely built by teams. What is distinctive about nearly every one of these teams is that they combined individual genius (often one or two within the group) and great team spirit from working really well together. Not all these times lasted long because of recurring issues around ego, but when they did, they worked fantastic.

This point is a great guide to anyone looking to build a great team. You want to encourage individual genius in your team and, at the same time, do your best to foster team spirit. It always feels safer to just bring people whose egos don’t clash. But, then, you lose edge. And, edge is often what make teams great.