Examples of high performing teams are pretty rare so whenever I find one, especially away from the realm of sport, it captures my attention. Amir D. Aczel’s book1 The Artist and the Mathematician, The Story of Nicolas Bourbaki the Genius Mathematician who Never Existed surprised me with such an example.
The setting is Post World War Two France. A group of elite mathematicians were struggling to teach University level mathematics to their students. Providing such an education was difficult because the existing texts were outdated and there was no consistent approach to the curriculum. Their answer was to work together on creating a new theoretical framework for mathematics education along with the associated texts.
Each person was an established mathematician in their own right and they recognised that their goal would be lost if it became associated too closely with anyone person. So partly as a gag, and partly as a convenience they created the fictional character of Nicolas Bourbaki. Bourbaki grew into a comprehensive charade with a detailed biography, a publishing story and even a sister.
Bourbaki was amazingly successful. If you have studied mathematics at senior school level or at pretty much any University the curriculum would still be heavily influenced by the theoretical framework established by this group.
In the 1950s, Bourbaki published one or two volumes every year, and mathematics students rushed to the book stores to purchase these books and finally learn mathematics in a rigorous and comprehensive and accurate way. (page 108)
The complete published works of Bourbaki covered 10,000 pages. They met three times a year and while the members of the group changed there were usually never more than 12 members.
So how did they do it?
They were a high performing team.
They had the right team constitution - the right people in the team.
As noted above, they were recognised mathematicians, they were in teaching positions and they had a broad outlook on life,
they knew so much and knew it so well … that they could go to the essential points. (p 114)
They showed tremendous commitment to the team’s goals.
All the members of Bourbaki shared a strong belief in the worthiness of the project they were undertaking
Each member worked very hard. In between their meetings they produced preliminary reports covered 1,000 to 2,000 pages per year.
They had a powerful culture of collaboration.
A group of such strong minded and intellectual personalities doesn’t lead to easy discussions. They planned the meetings intentionally “keeping in our discussions a carefully disorganized character”.
There was no president and anyone could speak at any time.
Discussions often turned into chaotic shouting matches in which an obscure point in a text was fought over by various individuals. (p 114)
Don’t be misled by the chaos and shouting matches. That was Bourbaki’s approach to collaboration. The culture in your team will be different.
The key is the foundation. The group was described as:
altogether a truly unselfish, anonymous, demanding work by people striving to give the best possible exposition of basic mathematics, moved by their belief in its unity and ultimate simplicity (p 116)
Unselfish, anonymous, demanding, striving, moved by belief and unity. These attributes are found in all high performance teams.
The group lasted about 20 years and then dwindled out for the usual reason, it had achieved the goal it set out to achieve.
The right constitution, complete commitment and a culture of collaboration. How does your team look?
Aczel, Amir, The Artist and the Mathematician, The Story of Nicolas Bourbaki the Genius Mathematician who Never Existed, Published 2006, Thunder’s Mouth Press. ↩︎