“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the vast and endless sea.” — likely paraphrase from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Citadelle (source)
I’m curious about why and how certain teams reliably outperform others.
Popular culture loves the story of the lone genius, but many accomplishments are small miracles of coordination within and across teams. We know it’s not enough to simply put smart people in a room - Apollo syndrome describes the phenomenon where teams made of highly capable individuals perform surprisingly poorly when made to work together. There’s a certain alchemy that results in great teams being greater than the sum of their parts. Is it possible to reliably produce this outcome?
Several people are thinking about this. Packy McCormick wrote about scenius, a term apparently coined by Brian Eno to describe “the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene…the communal form of the concept of the genius.” Samo Burja proposes an answer to the question “What are the origins of institutional health or sclerosis?” with his Great Founder Theory. Patrick Collison keeps a running list of materials about applied research labs. Benjamin Reinhardt does a deep dive into one of the most storied of those research labs, DARPA.
And so on. Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley says it well: “The hard part is building the machine that builds the product.”
Everything good is a team sport. I believe this deeply. (Even seemingly solo acts require a collaboration between an able body, a clear mind, and a willing heart.)
I would very much like to understand the art and science of collective excellence.
Why do I care about this?
I care about this because there is so much work to do in the world, and yet, on a species-wide level, we are appear fundamentally unserious about learning how to “build the machine that builds the product.” Honestly, it just feels a little embarrassing how collectively poor we are in understanding how to coordinate to solve hard problems.
Another reason I care about this is closer to home.
After finding myself in leadership roles at various points in my life, I soon realized that success or failure relied a lot on my ability to build - and maintain - strong teams. But I’ve never had a cohesive theory for why some teams worked better than others. Which meant that when things went wrong, like they inevitably do, I lacked the conceptual tools to fix them.
Currently, I lead the Growth organization at Paystack. I genuinely consider this - building several autonomous, self-replicating teams that accelerate growth for African creators - to be one of the most impactful things I will do in my life.
I care about this because if I can find the key insights that reliably produce formidable teams, I can share this with other African creators, and within our lifetimes, we will see African teams go toe-to-toe with the best teams in the world, and win.
Open questions I have related to this area of curiosity
A rambling and incomplete list of questions I have about this topic.
- How do you teach taste? (link)
- Some companies appear to produce a disproportionate number of alumni who achieve virtuosity within their field (eg. “PayPal mafia”). Why? (link)
- What is the best way to structure teams to work on projects on a multigenerational scale? How do you structure teams on work on projects that will persist beyond several human lifetimes? (link)
- In what ways does the acceleration of remote work aid or hinder the ability to form great teams? (link)
- Meetings are a technology. How can we make them better? (link)
- What is the political infrastructure that can reliably pulls off a large scale coordination problem like the Apollo Space Program
- What can we learn from the buildings that house(d) formidable teams eg. MIT’s legendary Building 20? Stewart Brand writes at legth about MIT Building 20 in How Buildings Learn
Indeed, MIT’s first interdisciplinary laboratory, the renowned Research Laboratory of Electronics, founded much of modern communications science there right after the war. The science of linguistics was largely started there, and forty years later in 1993 one of its pioneers, Noam Chomsky, was still rooted there. Innovative labs for the study of nuclear science, cosmic rays, dynamic analysis and control, acoustics, and food technology were born there. Harold Edgerton developed stroboscopic photography there. New-technology companies such as Digital Equipment Corporation and Bolt, Baranek, and Newman incubated in Building 20 and later took its informal ways with them into their corporate cultures and headquarters. The Tech Model Railroad Club on the third floor, E Wing, was the source in the early 1960s of most of the first generation of computer “hackers,” who set in motion a series of computer technology revolutions.
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