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The Evolution of the Hero: why we are all geniuses, collectively

Why we need to promote and protect a culture that appreciates a stroke of “collective genius”.

Jeff Gothelf (lean UX) argues that in agile environments there is no room for heroes.

At first read, this statement seems to go against everything that society has ingrained in us: heroes are to be celebrated, worshipped, and are the people that make any mission truly great. They are the ones who sweep in and save the day when everything is about to fail. So who are we to dismiss the heroic? Why wouldn’t we want the courageous and brave to be part of our teams?

The answer lies within the question. It’s because “hero” and “team” tend to be mutually exclusive.

Heroes might be appealing in Marvel comics, but when it comes to agile environments, the “hero ideal” is dangerous to agile teams. Instead, we need to promote and protect a culture that appreciates a stroke of “collective genius”.

In the traditional waterfall model, and in many team-based processes, it is clear who is responsible for every success (and failure) in both tasks and projects. It can prove to be a motivational factor, but it also drives an egocentric working environment, which rewards individuals’ successes rather than the teams’.

It creates a reward system that is occupied with extroverted personality types who appreciate verbal recognition and embody the traits of a “workplace hero”. The more introverted among us are much less motivated by this type of positive praise and are therefore are more likely to feel disadvantaged and demotivated in a hero-centric workplace culture.

Hero-driven development deprives the team of the opportunity to learn from failure. The ability to ‘save the day’ is important, but it is more valuable for a whole team to work through the problem together and learn, rather than a single person claiming to hold the answer.

Essentially, the plight of the hero undermines some of the key principles in the Agile Manifesto: such as the statement that the best designs emerge from self-organising teams. In agile, the smallest unit of labor is the team.

Linda Hill, coauthor of the book Collective Genius, has stated, “Conventional leadership won’t get you innovation.” The book recognises that innovation is a “team sport” and that “truly innovative groups are consistently able to elicit and then combine members’ separate slices of genius into a single work of collective genius.”

Agile working is a great facilitator of this idea, but it is something that can all too often be forgotten when we slip back into the perception of individual accountability for success. Jeff Gothelf is right; in agile environments there is no room for heroes, but there is room for “single slices of genius” which collectively create exceptional work.

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