Which is better, a great individual or a great team? On the one hand, we revere outstanding individuals. Yet we are taught the value of teamwork.
So, what gives?
There is no doubt that teams are better for certain tasks. Take fast food, for example. For 10 people to build 1,000 veggie burgers, we know it’s best to create an assembly line where each person completes a specific task. Simple tasks where everyone is qualified to do the job tend to be best completed by teams.
Companies have executive teams, with each member possessing expertise and responsibilities for different departments. Sports teams are composed of multiple great players, but they only win if they act as a team. Countries have multiple branches of government to create checks and balances. Our brains are composed of billions of neurons, all acting in concert to drive our minds. Termites act as teams without a leader and have been found to build complex structures, cultivate agriculture and create air-conditioned homes.
But there’s an important limit to what teams can do, and in these situations, a great individual is better than a good team.
Mark Zuckerberg once said that a great engineer is worth 100 average engineers. He was criticized for that statement, and surely a company the size of Facebook needs many engineers. But his point was that engineering is more like chess than basketball.
When it comes to genius, individuality is more critical to success. Not only is the value of a great individual more than the sum of a dozen mediocre minds in this case, but the value of a great individual can be better than that of a team of great individuals. A team of geniuses can often do more harm than good and destroy the value of a great individual.
Finding the right fit
It seems obvious that mediocre minds can destroy the contribution of a great mind, but it is equally true that great teams can destroy the contribution of a great mind. A second sculptor cutting into Michelangelo’s David, for example, would have caused massive destruction, even if the artist were Leonardo da Vinci.
Whether to use a group or an individual for a particular endeavor has remained elusive, but a recent scientific theory offers to provide the missing explanation: the critical brain hypothesis. It’s complicated, but the principle is related to peak performance, or what athletes describe as “being in the zone.” The general idea is that the brain is always operating at a transition point between two phases. In one phase, activity reduces rapidly. In the other, it increases in a burst called a neuronal avalanche.
The brain’s neural network activity transitions between peaks and valleys. In this way, insight, creativity and performance also ebb and flow and ultimately hit a breaking point and peak. At the peak of a neuronal avalanche is where brain processing is highest.
How do you choose?
Individuals experience bursts of peak performance but groups operate differently. The reason for this is peak performance happens within a system (within an individual’s brain for instance), not across systems (multiple brains). Individuals peak, but groups compromise, ultimately coming to a consensus.
So groups are good for consensus building, decision making, even idea generation. But they’re not as good when it comes to pushing the boundaries of our imagination, whether it be through innovation, industry or art.
To push the ball forward, teams are often best. But to create the ball, that takes a brilliant individual. In this regard, Walt will always outperform Disney, Henry will always outperform Ford, and Michael will always outperform Dell.
Copyright 2018, USATODAY.com, USA TODAY. Jeff Stibel is the former CEO of Web.com and vice chairman of Dun & Bradstreet, a partner of Bryant Stibel and an entrepreneur who also happens to be a brain scientist.