Have you ever been part of a winning team? I don’t mean an aggressive, beat-them-at-any-cost team; I mean a team that could tackle any challenge while simultaneously bringing out the best of everyone involved. The kind of team that makes valuable contributions to the organization and/or society while also making you excited about going to work every morning. There’s something about such a team that’s hard to quantify. Perhaps not every member is a star, but when they come together, everyone shines. Whole > sum of parts.

From my experience, such teams are rare and fragile. I was once part of a winning team. Everyone was world-class at their jobs. We had a great manager who articulated a clear vision and set realistic (but challenging) goals. Our remit cast us as outliers, a select group tasked with disrupting “the mothership.” We worked out of scrappy quarters that, far from discouraging us, fostered esprit de corps.

Then, after we’d achieved our first objective, the company reorganized. We were moved to a different part of the organization under new management and assigned to a “nicer” office. And — poof! — just like that, the magic was gone. Same people, same jobs — very different results. The team disbanded shortly after.

The outcome of a complex design project depends on the quality of the team working on it. In design, we tend to glorify individual contributors: we fawn over exquisite portfolios and richly detailed prototypes. But you can have the most brilliant, productive, experienced individuals working with you; if they can’t contribute within the team’s context, their brilliance will be lost. (It could even be a hindrance.) Design is especially fraught with tension between individual and collective contributions.

Fortunately, there’s a concept that bridges the two: scenius. It’s an important idea that has shifted my understanding of my role in design projects. Kevin Kelly published the canonical post on the concept:

Scenius is like genius, only embedded in a scene rather than in genes. Brian Eno suggested the word to convey the extreme creativity that groups, places or “scenes” can occasionally generate. His actual definition is: “Scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.”

Individuals immersed in a productive scenius will blossom and produce their best work. When buoyed by scenius, you act like genius. Your like-minded peers, and the entire environment inspire you.

Mr. Kelly suggests that you can’t synthesize scenius. (“Although many have tried many times, it is not really possible to command scenius into being… the best you can do is NOT KILL IT.”) However, he does offer four factors that nurture “the geography of scenius”:

  • Mutual appreciation
  • Rapid exchange of tools and techniques
  • Network effects of success
  • Local tolerance for novelties

All four factors were present in my winning team, and at least one was absent in under-performing teams I’ve been in. (For more details on each factor, see Mr. Kelly’s post.)

Although I agree that scenius is more emergent than designed, I believe leadership greatly influences the conditions that make it possible. (Note I said leadership, not management.) Although some team members have more “real” power than others, everyone can help make things better. This may call for holding your own ego in check. It may call for becoming more open with what you learn, or finding “safe” ways of celebrating the team’s transgressions. The bottom-line question is: what can you do to help create the context that makes it possible your team to thrive? I.e., how can you foster scenius?

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