Complex Problems Require Collaborative Genius
In the Nobel Prize’s first decade, over 80% of prizes were awarded to individuals rather than teams. In the past decade, only 36% of prizes were awarded to individuals, and nearly half of those were individual winners in the literature—not science or medicine—categories.
It would be easy to conclude that this shift reflects the changing whims of Nobel Prize juries. I believe there is something far more profound at work here. The problems we’re now facing, including the urgent problems concerning climate change, are increasingly complex and require intersecting expertise to confront. If you’re a business leader, researcher, or designer, understanding this shift is essential.
From Individual to Collaborative Genius
At the turn of the 20th century, when the Nobel Prize was established, it was a prize primarily designed to recognize individual acts of genius with the greatest benefit to humankind. That the prize originally sought to celebrate individuals also isn’t surprising. In the early 20th century, individuals asking the right questions and armed with the right tools could still achieve major breakthroughs working in relative isolation.
If the world was once ripe with low-hanging fruit waiting to be discovered, this is no longer the case and arguably hasn’t been for decades. In recent years, this shift has also brought the Nobel Prize under increased scrutiny. In 2017, when physicists Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish took home the Nobel Prize for Physics for their discovery of gravitational waves, many people, including other physicists, questioned why other scientists who contributed to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory project had not been honored. As astrophysicist Martin Rees observed, “The fact that the Nobel Prize 2017 committee refuses to make group awards is causing increasingly frequent problems and giving a misleading impression of how a lot of science is actually done.” Rees had a point.
Although we may still cling to the idea that great innovations and breakthroughs are acts of individual genius, this is rarely, if ever, true. For decades now, the greatest innovations and scientific breakthroughs have been the result of dozens and even hundreds or thousands of minds working in tandem. And with the arrival of increasingly powerful forms of AI, determining who, if anyone, is responsible for great innovations is growing even more complicated.
In his 1972 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, biochemist Christian Anfinsen predicted that it would eventually be possible to predict the 3D structure of any protein based on its sequence of amino acid building blocks. For nearly five decades following Anfinsen’s speech, researchers around the world struggled to crack the “protein folding problem.” Then, in 2018, a significant breakthrough occurred, but it wasn’t due to the work of a sole researcher or even a team of collaborators. The breakthrough was accomplished by AlphaFold, an AI program developed by DeepMind.
By 2021, AlphaFold2 had advanced research on the protein folding problem so greatly that Science declared the discovery to be the “breakthrough of the year.” But could AlphaFold2 ever be recognized by the Nobel Prize committee? If so, who would be honored and split the lucrative award? Would it be the AI? Would it be the various teams that helped develop AlphaFold throughout the 2010s? Would it be DeepMind? Would it be DeepMind’s holding company, Alphabet Inc.?
A Lesson in Innovation
Thanks to the ability of humans to collaborate on projects of all kinds, wherever they happen to be located, and the ability of AI to process vast amounts of data at an exponentially faster rate than humans, we’re now able to see and explore the world anew. However, in order to make the most of this newfound potential, I believe many people, including business leaders, need to pivot.
– Adopt a new mindset.
To begin, business leaders should engage in a mindset change. All too often, leaders still expect innovation to come from an individual hire or a small team they’ve assembled. In fact, true innovation and once-in-a-lifetime breakthroughs no longer belong to an individual or even a team, but to thousands of individuals working with increasingly powerful forms of AI across functional disciplines. If fully recognized and embraced across disciplines and sectors, this shift could help us finally start to effectively tackle the many complex problems we now face.
– Rethink talent recruitment and teams.
I’ve always relied on a pool of talented collaborators working across disciplines, fields, job functions, and geographies. This model has enabled me to assemble unique teams for each new project I tackle. While this model may not work for every organization, when it comes to innovation, in my experience, the agility to assemble the right team for the right project is essential.
– Innovate without ego.
As AlphaFold’s breakthrough work on the protein folding problem so clearly illustrates, in the 2020s, the greatest breakthroughs are increasingly acts of collaborative genius (i.e., thousands of great human minds working in tandem with AI). If this is the future, then it is also time to finally put our egos to rest.
Simply put, if we want to solve the world’s most complex problems, the fastest way forward is to recognize that together, we’re always already one step closer to tomorrow’s solutions.