In science and in many related fields, the lone genius assumption persists: that individuals act and think alone, pour themselves over data in solitude and emerge with a solution that is revolutionary and inspirational.

Many do buy into this story.

Yet, the stories we actually hear are often those of insights that have emerged through collaborations.

In the most recent episode of Hidden Brain podcast, Daniel Kahneman spoke about his life, his collaboration with Amos Tversky, and how this collaboration has been life changing in many ways.

Kahneman and Tversky met almost by accident at a university in Israel and started trialling ideas together, there was lots of laughter and this deep collaboration, as we now know, resulted in amazing ideas and new innovation around judgment and biases in the study of human mind and decision-making.

The basic message is that it is extremely rare to find someone in science who you can work this way with. Most people compete against each other and developing a truly collaborative relationship also means sharing recognition of what has been achieved, something that seems harder and harder in our individualistic world.

Even Kahneman notes that collaboration is not a smooth straight path but it has always its tensions. So if you manage to maintain such a relationship over the years, you are very lucky.

During my career so far, I have been fortunate to have many collaborations, yet one such deep life changing collaboration with only one person. We have had our own battles but we have come through all of that. The way our brains sync, inspiring new ideas, building upon what the other knows and doesn’t know, is what I would argue results in true empowerment and innovation in science.

What breaks a collaborative spirit

But there are multiple factors that actually break a collaborative spirit and cause people to lose confidence in their abilities and the quality of their work.

Eric Barker notes 3 key factors, which enable collaboration: building safety, sharing vulnerability and establishing a purpose.

Missing any of these three is likely to result in sub-optimal performance and to be frank, in a workplace where people do not trust each other and won’t put their best ideas forward.

Building safety means creating “belonging cues” that according to Alex Pentland at MIT  are behavioural cues that we give to each other about belonging in a group. Such cues are hugely powerful because they are

“number one predictor of team performance — more predictive than intelligence, skill or leadership. In fact, you can ignore all the information exchanged by a group and know how well they’re going to do just by looking at belonging cues”

From management perspective, if you manage your team in silos, you are missing the opportunity for these cues to develop and for people to feel safe. This links strongly to another issue: silo management also shuts down information flow and reduces people’s feelings of ownership and belonging to a team.

Teams that do not share vulnerability keep competing against each other. If you do not share vulnerability and admit weaknesses, it is likely people will not connect to each other and great opportunities for shared learning are missed.

Likewise, not establishing a shared purpose results in individuals missing out on the bigger picture, reduces their drive to do things better and encourage each other to push the project or task forward.

I would not be surprised if someone did a study and showed how the absence of all these factors, or weak performance in all three, actually stifled innovation and collaboration.

What needs to change and how?

According to Patty McCord, one of the main issues with current management approaches is the perception that people need to be managed, given incentives, and then further managed to make sure they deliver.

But what if we gave our staff freedom and responsibility? Patty notes that treating your staff like responsible adults and giving them responsibility and freedom is essential to make people simply powerful.

Needless to say, much of this comes down to leadership and management. There are countless books, podcast episodes, and articles just devoted on this topic: how do you keep momentum going with your team, how do you empower your staff, and also inspire yourself to truly keep with the principles of innovative collaboration. This is not a trivial focus given how much all these factors influence the outcomes.

Another has to do with transparency: decisions should be transparent to everyone involved and information should be shared across the project team. Cutting the flow of information leads to misperceptions on what the direction is, where people are expected to go, and which goals are most important in that process.

Likewise, Eric Barker’s 3 key factors are critical here. If you build safety, let people show their vulnerability and constantly work in generating positive responses in that process, and establish a shared significant purpose, this will grease the wheel of collaboration in a ways that will result in true shared innovation.

What would it be like “to be able to come in and work with the right team of people—colleagues they trust and admire—and to focus like crazy on doing a great job together”?

It’s the kind of collaboration many of us still daydream about but something that can become a reality. It requires hard work, and as Danny Kahneman very perceptively notes, lots of laughter and trust in that ideas can be bounced around and that failing together is pretty awesome.

In many ways, collaboration and innovation are coupled together so strongly that we should be extremely careful to make sure we work hard to enable both. Human connection is the best remedy for innovation, combined with laughter and a shared sense of purpose.

But perhaps most importantly: not every collaboration is the making of stars. Just calling project work “collaboration” does not result in deep connections and innovation. It’s actually hard work and needs to have the enabling conditions and attitudes in place to truly succeed.

To sum up: 

  1. Find collaborators in your field or outside of it who have a passion for innovation, and are not afraid to develop ideas together. This can be hard given how much focus we place on individual track records but each of us in any case bounce ideas off each other. So find a bouncing idea buddy and go for it.
  2. Foster an environment where people are not afraid to acknowledge their weaknesses and failures. Talking about failure is often difficult but leads to more transparent and empowered conversations and makes us just more human.
  3. Be real. Be real about your purpose, goals and visions. This requires a good dose of self-awareness but is essential for meaningful collaborations: once you know where you need to go, it will be easier to also find those who want to go there with you.