What can HR learn from the Nobel Prize?

September 17, 2021


I propose, potentially controversially, that our next great discoveries, technical achievements or otherwise giant leaps in human progress will be the product of collaboration and not the efforts of lone genii.‍

It’s a controversial statement because our education system (or at least the system I grew up with in the UK) is geared towards the individual. You learn on your own, you are tested on your own and move up or down social and academic ranks based on your own performance. I’m not condemning the education system, merely pointing out that it prizes individual effort over collaboration. Which is, in my opinion, counter productive for real progress.

‍If you already believe that teams can achieve more than individuals then that’s probably because there exist supporting anecdotes wherever you choose to look. Cycling for example, a notoriously individual activity, now the elite races are won only as part of a team. The discovery of water on Mars, only possible by teams of hundreds designing, building and operating the most advanced satellites. There are countless more anecdotal examples, but I work for a data led company so let’s look at some data. In fact I’m going to choose data from perhaps the most individualistic environment possible, the pinnacle of our education system, the Nobel prize.

Trend of how many people won the Nobel Prize in each category. This graph is a moving average of period 20.

In almost every discipline the pinnacle of human intellect is increasingly being reached through collaboration.

‍So what’s my point? Teams matter. Hard problems are not only solved more easily by teams but they actually require teams. Of course, more collaboration and stronger social ties have great social and health benefits too, but my message is that teams - rather than individuals - are the best way to solve our next great challenges and fulfil our next great ambitions.


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And yet in school and the workplace we’re still stuck in the old ways of individualism. In new jobs we are interviewed in isolation, rarely evaluated as part of the team we will be working with and then once we have the job our performance is treated as if it was independent from our team environment. So perhaps, if we want to see greater success in business, we should place more emphasis on the design of teams and treat individual performance as a result of team collaboration.

But it’s not enough to develop teams that work in silos. The most exciting discoveries are happening at the interface of disciplines. Like Astrophysicists helping doctors diagnose heart problems or computer scientists who helped pharmacists at Moderna speed up the development of their COVID vaccine - one of the first to receive regulatory approval.

In this fascinating video Sandy Pentland from MIT shows how the patterns of communication within organisations - not what is actually said - is one of the biggest factors in predicting performance.

So what does this mean for HR? Well it raises important questions about how we organise, measure and reward talent. 

In basic terms it means finding ways to ensure our people talk to each other more. This could be by shifting our performance management model from focusing on individual competencies to focusing on team effectiveness. Or measuring whether team managers are having regular 1-1’s with their direct reports or if you want to copy Google and improve performance by 10% perhaps it just means making office lunch tables bigger... 

This is why we built the Saberr Platform. It's specifically designed to help managers engage and lead their team. We call it a performance development platform - think of it as the best of leadership development and performance management, combined. And it gets great results. Within 6 months CoachBot reliably increases team performance by over 20%, increases employee engagement by over 12% and increases psychological safety, or trust, by more than 40%.

‍The reason we're able to get such great results through technology is because we focus on improving relationships in the offline world. CoachBot does lots of clever things but I think the most clever thing is also perhaps the most simple thing - it encourages members of a team to have conversations with each other. Conversations they might otherwise not be having and along the way supports them to make these conversations better and more focused.

‍Having better conversations with their team might be one small step for a manager but... (yes, I'm going there)... it's one giant leap for man(ager)kind.

For more ideas on where to start, check out our guide on the 7 habits of highly effective teams.

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Two male team members having a meeting