This essay is about fostering collaboration in the workplace using lessons from the Hardy-Ramanujan story. These two people may appear very different on the surface, but are characterized by a passionate love for a subject they deeply cared about.
Collaboration in the age of smartphones has come to mean ‘an act of working towards a common goal through exchange of ideas by instant communication’. I want to impress upon the reader that this represents a very shallow definition. Collaboration has become all about the tools and processes. It’s become more about how quickly and easily I can “socialize” my ideas. Social tools do their best to promote this concept by allowing the most popular ideas to bubble up either by way of ‘likes’ or ‘ratings’. The resulting Groupthink is the root of all evil that surrounds mediocrity in the world today. Groupthink, up votes, ratings, etc. is good for solving tactical problems not for setting the strategic direction of a company or to put it in perspective, not good enough for identifying the hidden “Davids” among the several “Goliaths”.
Real collaboration dates back even to the days before the advent of email and the Internet; when we just had snail-mail. True collaboration is possible only when there is desire between individuals to seek each other’s benefit. This does not require tools, but a cultural shift in the mindset of individuals, companies and industries as a whole.
Collaboration is best exemplified by the relationship between G.H Hardy, the famous mathematician and S. Ramanujan, the mathematical genius from India who would have died an unknown death, had it not been for Hardy. Hardy saw in Ramanujan the potential to become one of the brightest minds the field of number theory has ever had. He compared Ramanujan to Euler and pushed him to prove his theorems even when he was completely aware that Ramanujan’s formulas did not require proof. One would hastily describe the relation between Ramanujan and Hardy as a mentor and mentee.
However, at an individual level, they held extremely opposite belief systems. They were as contrasting characters as you can possibly imagine. Hardy was a professed atheist; Ramanujan an ardent devotee of a personal God. Hardy didn’t believe in intuition; Ramanujan claimed all his theorems come to him as flashes of intuition. Hardy asked for proofs; Ramanujan said “You don’t need them, I know it’s true”. When pushed hard, Ramanujan would provide the proofs so Hardy could get him published in the Journal of the London Mathematical Society. He was finally elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society due to Hardy’s relentless efforts.
The Hardy-Ramanujan relationship exemplifies the true meaning of collaboration. It’s the desire of one human to recognize and unravel the latent potential in another. It’s the desire to seek the betterment of the other party – this is not just professionalism at its best. This is humanism at its best. For example, true collaboration reflects the freedom of a shop-floor engineer to inform the management they are out of touch with ground reality.
Collaboration requires a people-centric approach. Organizations typically institutionalize processes to foster collaboration and put metrics in place to measure it – as if it were some kind of a physical attribute. On the contrary, collaboration can never be forced upon no matter how intuitive the tools. Measuring collaboration to ensure it does not die a painful death has an opposite effect. You rob the process of the very joy that fuels it.
So the mindless pursuit of collaboration as if it were an end in itself will prove detrimental as the real value lies in the content and the intent behind the collaborative effort. As commendable as Hardy’s own contributions are, his greatest contribution to mathematics can arguably be hailed as the discovery of Ramanujan himself.
People collaborate because of the desire within, not because of processes without. Create a culture that fosters this desire in more people, so your organization is not deprived of future Ramanujans due to lack of enough Hardys. And don’t forget to reward the Hardys!
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