No Lone Ranger

I recently finished the book The Innovators by Walter Isaacson.  The book traces the development of the computer and the internet from the early 1900s to the present.  Isaacson is a great writer.  He wrote the definitive biography of Steve Jobs, and also wrote an excellent biography of Benjamin Franklin (which I read a couple years ago).  I’d highly recommend any of his books.  He’s a great scholar, but also writes in a very accessible and engaging lone rangers

The Innovators piqued my interest for a couple reasons.  First, as a very “non-technical”  person, learning about the roots and stages of development of the computer and the internet (basically the digital revolution) gave me much better context for understanding technology in general, and the how it applies to me more specifically.  However, the most interesting insight I took from the book was how collaboration between people and groups (and lack of concern for who got the credit) was at the root of the digital revolution.  Almost no progress was made by lone rangers, individual superstars.  Almost every significant advance came through collaboration, from a team working together effectively.  I believe this has profound application for how we approach our work today.

Throughout the book, Isaacson identifies several individual geniuses who could have become famous for their part in the digital revolution, but because they were “lone rangers” who couldn’t figure out how to collaborate and work effectively with others, ended up in the dust bin of history.  The best example? Take the question of who invented the electronic digital computer.  Bet you’ve never heard of John Atanasoff.  Atanasoff was on the faculty at Iowa State.  In his work there he had largely completed the first fully electronic digital computer and was on the verge of going public with it.  But because he worked all alone with no team to help him, he couldn’t figure out how to get his punch-card burner to operate.  This proved to be his undoing and prevented him from ever introducing his computer publicly.  Not the hardest technical problem, but he couldn’t solve it alone.  He was so close, but his computer literally ended up in the basement, and then ultimately was thrown away.  He couldn’t get to the finish line by himself, without a team.

By way of contrast, a team led by John Mauchly and Presper Eckert at the University of Pennsylvania is now widely credited with inventing the first electronic digital computer.  Unlike Atanasoff, Mauchly and Eckert engaged the help of dozens of engineers and mechanics, plus a cadre of women who handled all the programming.  They may not have been the individual genius that John Atanasoff was, but they understood the power of building a team and how that team could work collaboratively.  The result was that they became known as the inventors of the first electronic digital computer.  We see this at every step of the digital revolution.  Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were never known as being warm and fuzzy (or even particularly likeable!), but they knew how to build teams effectively.  As smart as they were, they knew they wouldn’t succeed as lone rangers.  Working effectively with a team ultimately drove their success.

Effective collaboration also involves understanding the different talents and skill sets required to successfully turn a vision into a reality.  The founders of Intel were a great example of this.  Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore founded Intel, and Andy Grove joined them early on in the business’ development.  Noyce was charismatic as all get out.  He was smart as a whip and drew people to him.  People would follow him anywhere.  Gordon Moore was a soft spoken, congenial, introverted chemist, but there was no one better on the technical side.  He became one of the most revered figures in Silicon Valley.  People loved him.  Noyce and Moore were both visionaries.  Both were smart and both knew how to include others.  But there was one thing missing.  Neither of them had the hard nosed execution and confrontational skills needed to drive the business forward and hold employees accountable.  To their credit, Noyce and Moore recognized this leadership gap and hired Andy Grove to drive execution and hold people accountable.  And the rest is history.  Intel became one of the great stories of the digital revolution.  This was a great example of collaboration at the top, bringing the right skill sets together to make a vision not only a reality, but an iconic, world class success.

Finally, the coolest collaborative projects seem to emerge when no one cares who gets the credit.  Wikipedia is the posterchild for this.  As you probably know, all content is contributed by people to Wikipedia for free, and all information on Wikipedia is available for free.  In 2014, Wikipedia had 30 million articles, and certainly has many times more than that today.  By way of contrast, when Encyclopedia Britannica quit publishing a print edition in 2010, it had only 80,000 articles in its electronic edition.  Quite simply, Wikipedia has been the greatest collaborative project in history, with no one getting credit, and no one seemingly caring.

Why do people contribute to Wikipedia when they get nothing in return?  Probably lots of reasons, but at the core Isaacson identifies it as the psychological reward people get from interacting with others toward a common goal, and the personal gratification people get from doing something millions of people will find useful.  They may not technically own it, but the contributors feel they are “vested” in, have a sense of ownership in, this amazing collaborative project.  No money involved, just a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves.

So how do we apply this to our organization?  Granted, we aren’t likely working on anything as historically significant as the invention of the computer or the internet.  But figuring out how to get our people to work collaboratively, how to get the right people with the right skills in the room and tap into the psychological satisfaction of working with others to produce something bigger than ourselves, can truly be a difference maker in each of our organizations.  How fun would it be to make this happen!

Jeff Meyer
Baillie Lumber