The Discovery of DNA and the Meaning of Life

…or how individual intelligence led to second place

Sixty eight years ago this Sunday, on February 28, 1953, two scientists walked into their neighborhood pub in Cambridge England, ordered their drinks, and one of them announced to the patrons “We have found the secret to life.”

This was no lie – that morning, Cambridge University scientists James D. Watson and Frances H.C. Crick had discovered the double-helix structure of DNA, the biological material that carries life’s genetic information.

On the fiftieth anniversary of that discovery, Watson took part in an interview inquiring about the aspects of their work that had led them to solve the problem ahead of an array of other highly accomplished and recognized rival scientists.

Along with the expected answers – they identified the most important part of the problem, they were passionate about their work, they devoted themselves single-mindedly to the task, they were willing to attempt approaches outside their area of familiarity – came this surprise:

Watson said that he and Crick had cracked the elusive code for DNA primarily because they were not the most intelligent scientists pursuing the answer.

Watson went on to explain that the most intelligent person working on the project in those days was Rosalind Franklin, a British scientist working in Paris at the time. According to Watson:

Rosalind was so intelligent that she rarely sought advice. And if you’re the brightest person in the room, then you’re in trouble.

Watson’s comment describes exactly the error that many leaders in today’s organizations make: they believe that they are the best-informed, most-experienced, or most-skilled person in the group. They may be, but studies have repeatedly shown that the approaches and outcomes of groups who cooperate in seeking a solution are not just better than the average member working along, they are even better than the group’s best problem solver working alone.

Far too often, leaders – who by virtue of greater experience, skill, and wisdom, deem themselves the ablest problem solver in the group – fail to ask for input from team members.

  • Lone decision makers can’t match the diversity of knowledge and perspectives of a team
  • Input from others can stimulate thinking processes that wouldn’t develop on their own
  • Individual thinkers can’t parallel process – dividing parts of the problem among many members

Trying to discover the meaning of life? How about something much simpler, like a new funding initiative to increase service to one of your target groups? Or any problem facing your team?

Don’t forget the danger of being the brightest person in the room.


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