The usual argument is synergies drive good performance. But perhaps a better argument for teams is they help support individuals through periods of devastating bad luck. This is true in many parts of life, and in science being part of a good lab can be very important, especially when things go wrong.

I am not sure why the synergy argument dominates discussions. Probably because of the attractiveness of being optimistic and talking up positives. Or because we often see teams in the context of winning competitions. Whatever the reason, many people fixate on the clichéd – “we can be more than the sum of our parts” – aspect of teamwork and collaboration.

Yes, clearly teams have broader expertise than individuals can ever expect to have. Bringing different people together can achieve great things. In many molecular biology labs, there are those who are great at bioinformatics, others are experts at cell culture, some quickly master new techniques, like CRISPR gene-editing, and there will be those who keep up with the literature, or people-people who make big contributions by organising the social calendar. And, many teams have someone who is annoyingly good at everything. The combination of expertise can be powerful, and equally important it can be highly visible.

Teams also provide a level of camaraderie. They can impart the, sometimes doubtful, advantages of tribalism that can be harmful when they occur in the context of nationalism or party politics, but can be fun in sport or work. In labs, it can be exciting to be competing against other teams – uniting against a rival! Rivalry does bring people together. Sometimes it hurts to lose, but that’s all part of making things real.

One also gets a sense of belonging from being in a team, and can enjoy the warmth of recognition when one is appreciated by peers. It’s a great feeling to belong to a lab you enjoy working in, with people you respect and who respect you.

On the other hand, there are clear negatives related to teams and even to the ability of teams to get things done.

Teams are not always good at doing creative things, like writing poems, or I would argue doing highly creative discovery science. It can be hard for teams to “think outside of the box”. Teams may struggle to stick to long or difficult projects, as it is sometimes difficult to keep diverse teams together and to motivate them. There may be problems with sustaining universal agreement, managing incompatible personalities, or just working with people with different styles or interests – as Sartre wrote ‘hell is other people’.

Sometimes when people worry about a team’s capacity to deliver, they don’t call it a team but a committee!

It sounds selfish to say it but when things are going well it can be better to be acting as an individual. It’s nice to get a sense of satisfaction from one’s own work and some people get a sense of security from personal recognition and rewards. In contrast, in teams, the so-called “attribution problem” often plagues group endeavours since, sadly, it can be hard to ensure that every member of the team feels their contributions are appreciated.

Striving to get the balance right between being an individual and contributing as part of a team is an ongoing challenge across many aspects of life – not only in how deeply one wants to immerse oneself but in knowing when one needs to creatively go it alone and when it is better to be part of a team.

One thing is certain though – you can never tell when disaster will strike.

When it hits at an individual level people come to appreciate teams. It may well be that across human history the over-riding value of teams has been to protect individuals from bad luck. Perhaps the incentives that encourage people to join teams relate more to this than the prospects of riches from synergistic and triumphant teamwork. The fear and realisation that sporadic bad luck may hit any of us, may be the magic string that holds the atoms that make up our communities together.

In science and in most labs people collaborate but typically each researcher devotes themselves primarily to one or two individual projects. These projects are big things, especially for junior researchers, who are just building their reputations. The reality is that at the beginning you have to put all your eggs into one basket because of the limits of available time or resources.

This creates an individual vulnerability. It is risky but important that people try bold, new projects. If you do this right your next experiment could lead to a Nobel Prize, but obviously mostly it won’t.

Sometimes it will lead absolutely nowhere. There is a myth that experiments can be carefully crafted so you cannot lose, but while bigger lab portfolios can be balanced, individual research programs tend to be very focussed. There is an asymmetry that benefits the group at the potential cost to certain individuals. No one can tell in advance which risks will pay off and which won’t.

Nevertheless, if you are in a good lab, in a strong team, when the disappointing results do hammer you the cumulated capacity of the team will come to the rescue. You will be supported by other members of the team. Firstly, they will share their own stories of failures to console you. People will also look for new opportunities that arise as side projects of other work and you will be offered options and ideas for new experiments. In addition, if someone is having bad luck, supervisors will look for opportunities for people write reviews or will reserve some of the less risky projects for those who have been hit by bad luck. Being part of a team serves as a sort of insurance scheme.

Insurance companies are sometimes maligned but at its inception insurance was a great way of insulating individuals from bad luck. A couple of centuries ago one of the first life insurance schemes was established when Scottish churchmen all paid a little to make provision for any wife who would need support if one of the husbands passed away. In the same way, if everyone in a community is prepared to provide some support, this can effectively protect anyone who strikes bad luck. Humans are generally sympathetic and communities are supportive – as we know “everyone hurts sometimes” and as the Latin saying goes ‘sent lachrymal Rerum’ – there are tears for things.

Every now and then disaster will strike. The summer in Australia has been devastating and hopefully communities will be able to support those who have been most directly affected, via what some would call team-derived insurance, or what film makers might term – love actually.

Professor Merlin Crossley, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic at UNSW writes and edits the Crossley Lab 


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