This article by Aaron Orendorff is part of our Blogtober event, which features blog posts written by industry influencers in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
At one time or another, we all believe that “greatness,” especially staggering greatness, comes from individuals. It’s a misconception that says success and innovation are born from isolated people acting alone, who are possessed of singular courage and original genius. People like Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, and Larry Page are famous for their inventions and innovations.
We believe this idea because it’s seductive: It feeds our egos. Just about everything in our culture reinforces it. The truth, however, is that greatness—great products, great businesses, great insights, and even great cures—don't come from "I." They come from "we."
Whatever our business, problem, malady, or ailment, collaboration is the cure. The idea that working alone and rejecting outside help and influence is the best method for dealing with challenges is a lie. Collaboration is the answer to improvement in our businesses and in our lives.
How is isolation killing our businesses? The greatest modern example was James Watson and Francis Crick's discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA. Robert Cialdini, in his insightful book Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, writes of an interview with Watson on how this world-changing discovery was made.
At first, he presents the traditional list of factors leading to success that we might expect, like clearly identifying the problem, being passionate and single-minded, and a willingness to "embrace and attempt approaches that were outside the area of familiarity.” But then Watson reveals the true key: “Rosalind [Franklin, the world’s leading expert at the time] was so intelligent that she rarely sought advice. And if you’re the brightest person in the room, then you’re in trouble.”
Watson and Crick, on the other hand, because they weren’t the most intelligent or the brightest people in the room, had to rely on each other. Their individual limitations forced them to work as a “we” instead of as an “I.” In Cialdini’s words: “The best leader operating individually will be beaten to a correct solution by an all-inclusive cooperating unit.”
When it comes to finding success by way of collaboration, Watson and Crick aren’t alone. Walter Isaacson’s most recent book The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, revolves around the necessity of collaborative work. As he explains:
“Most of the innovations of the digital age were done collaboratively. There were a lot of fascinating people involved, some ingenious and a few even geniuses. This is… a narrative of how they collaborated and why their ability to work as teams made them even more creative.”
The inventors mentioned previously—Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, and Larry Page—are not solely responsible for their successes. Edison Electric Light Company was only possible because of the financial backing from wealthy investors like J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilt family, as well as previous research and innovation from other inventors who came before him. Steve Jobs had Steve Wozniak to help him in Apple’s humble beginnings, and Larry Page cofounded Google with Sergey Brin.
Collaboration breeds creativity and inspires world-changing advancements. A number of companies are built at their core to maximize innovation by maximizing collaboration. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, spoke at Dreamforce this year and remarked that “diversity is an existential need for Microsoft,” which is why his company and Salesforce have partnered together.
“Leaders today must be able to harness ideas, people, and resources from across boundaries of all kinds. That requires reinventing their talent strategies and building strong connections both inside and outside their organizations,” say Herminia Ibarra and Morten T. Hansen in their article for the Harvard Business Review. Collaboration is the cure to stagnant business and to improving innovation. More examples could be discussed, but all this begs the question: What does collaboration have to do with Breast Cancer Awareness Month?
Cancer first hit home to me seven years ago: A close friend of mine, Meredith, was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer. She wasn’t a smoker. She hadn’t been exposed to hazardous working conditions. And she was in her mid-twenties. She wasn’t an “at risk” person at all.
Cancer’s never an easy word, but not being able to point to a cause—a clear “here’s why”—makes it excruciating. So to chronicle her experience and help bring meaning to it, Meredith and her husband Nick started a blog.
After nearly a year, and after painful and invasive surgeries and treatments, Meredith was given the diagnosis “in remission.” However, as many of you know, “remission” doesn’t mean “the end.” In one of her most revealing posts, “Count Your Blessings”, Meredith wrote, “Since I learned that I was cancer free I have had the most difficulty with depression… I stopped focusing on surviving” and she was faced with the consequences of her treatment.
To combat her depression, she created a Praise Journal. “I began to write down the wonderful people and things that God has put in mine and Nick's lives, and that includes all of you.“ What’s striking about the list aren’t the things or events. It’s the people.
People rallying around a common goal, like taking care of someone diagnosed with cancer, is similar to businesses collaborating in order to drive innovation. Some companies have taken the extra step and are collaborating in order to help end cancer.
For example, Intel and Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) have partnered to create a platform hospitals and researchers can use to share data in order to make “potentially lifesaving discoveries.” Their goal is to “advance cancer research.” They plan to expand their partnership to two more cancer research institutions next year.
Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, asked the Dreamforce 2015 audience, “What can we do as a community to improve the world of cancer survivors, to create more survivors, and to improve the biosciences with information science?” His answer: The Wisdom Study. This program is a collaboration between Salesforce, the University of California, San Francisco, and the Athena breast health network. The goal is to learn if a new breast cancer screening method is comparable to annual mammograms. They have lofty goals for the program, and previously, “conducting a study with this many participants would have been unthinkable, but with the Salesforce team behind them, [the head doctor] believes it will be accomplished in just six months.”
Collaboration isn’t just the cure for our businesses. It’s the cure for the problems that affect our very lives. Isolation—professionally and personally—impedes progress. As Henry Ford said, "Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success."
By night, Aaron Orendorff’s busy “saving the world from bad content” as a freelance copywriter over at iconiContent. By day, he teaches communication and philosophy at the local college. You can find him on Twitter at @iconiContent
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