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Geniuses or butterflies

I loved Joseph Henrich’s take on culture’s role in his book, The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. And I have particularly admired how he points out that it’s not enough for a species to be smart but to have a cultural infrastructure to share, teach, and learn. 

Consider two very large prehuman populations, the Geniuses, and the Butterflies. Suppose the Geniuses will devise an invention once in 10 lifetimes. The Butterflies are much dumber, only devising the same invention once in 1000 lifetimes. So, this means that the Geniuses are 100 times smarter than the Butterflies. However, the Geniuses are not very social and have only one friend they can learn from. The Butterflies have ten friends, making them ten times more social.

Now, everyone in both populations tries to obtain an invention by figuring it out for themselves and learning from friends. Suppose learning from friends is difficult: if a friend has it, a learner only knows it half the time. After everyone has done their learning and tried to learn from their friends, do you think the innovation will be more common among the Geniuses or the Butterflies?

Well, among the Geniuses, a bit fewer than 1 out of 5 individuals (18%) will end up with the invention. Half of those Geniuses will have figured it out all by themselves. Meanwhile, 99.9% of Butterflies will have the innovation, but only 0.1% will have figured it out by themselves.

Know that it’s the Geniuses who innovate, but it’s the Butterflies who spread that innovation around. Both components are required for successfully implementing new, brilliant ideas.

Source: Farnam Street

I think it’s a great analogy, especially from a talent management perspective. Most leaders are convinced that to build a world-class team, they need a bunch of geniuses. And that’s far from the truth as the best teams often have a healthy blend of geniuses and butterflies.