Eureka! Why Collaboration Is Vital to Innovation
It takes two flints to make a fire, and two to tango. Success rarely stems from a lone genius. Just take a look at who's behind these household names. Apple, by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Disney, by brothers Walt Disney and Roy O. Disney. Google, by Larry Page and Sergey Brin.
Society likes to reward a sole entrepreneur because we’re used to having only one hero or one protagonist in stories. That’s why we only hear about Steve Jobs and Walt Disney. But times are changing, and credit is given where credit’s due. It's actually all about the team.
Jack Welch of GE's mythical "high-performing team" is actually a jigsaw puzzle of people that all fit well in completing the bigger picture. It's the team that's able to condense individual uniqueness into company innovation, and perhaps, emerge as the David in a sea of Goliaths. This is all built on collaboration, and here's how it works.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Let’s go back in time to the foundation of our current knowledge. In Isaac Newton’s letter to his rival, Robert Hooke, he wrote the famous science metaphor of 'standing on the shoulders of giants'. The origin of this phrase stemmed from Robert Hooke discovering that Newton’s research findings were oddly similar to his’. Newton responded that he was indeed inspired by his works, as well as by Descartes'.
The phrase came to mean 'discovering truth by building on previous discoveries'. As with many scientific advancements, almost all progress is built on the triumphs of others.
In the context of enterprises and companies, we all bounce off each other’s created values. Employees stand on the shoulders of the collective workforce - everything that has been done in the past and the present. Innovation stems from a collaboration between different sets of knowledge. Our success relies not only on ourselves but everything that helped us achieve that, whether it's other people's research, other's motivating statements, the companies' vision, etc.
Collaboration can go beyond time and space, as illustrated by Newton, in the sense that we can build off of established ideas and collaborate despite being miles apart. Collaboration is, and has been, vital to the advancement of humanity.
A Collaborative Economy
Founder of Catalyst Companies, Jeremiah Owyang, came up with a phrase to describe the trend of collaborating with workers of specialized professions, especially amid the rise of remote working. He calls it a 'collaborative economy’.
"If I need a community manager part-time, a data scientist, or a market researcher, I can find willing freelancers or contractors online and borrow part of their time," he states. "These are professionals that may have deep domain knowledge, skills, or extra time that I don’t have, and I can access them instantly."
The Renaissance Man is becoming extinct with the rise of specialization. A paper by Benjamin Jones, a professor of management at Northwestern University, investigates the fundamental aspects of technological progress. Workers are forced to narrow their expertise for the past 30 years due to the division of labour, and in turn, forces innovators to work in teams. Benjamin explains, "Over time, this is an ongoing, never-ending phenomenon of increased specialization, which is ever increasing the demand for collaboration."
We collaborate to access skills that we are missing. That’s why departments exist. We have to rely on each other’s skillset to achieve a well-rounded solution.
Bell Labs created the first transistor from a collaborative effort among various specialists - scientists, engineers, businessmen and even some telephone pole climbers. We now live in a shared economy where people often share goods and services. In combination with increased specialisation, sharing niche knowledge can drive better innovation. People of different expertise can combine their knowledge in creating new ideas.
As Owyang said, employees can be ‘mixed-and-matched' with the help of technology. Different perspectives can help with innovation, as well as quick execution.
A Balance of Sugar and Spice (and Everything Nice)
The sweet spot to business innovation is the right balance between team members. Think of collaboration as a recipe for cake. To bake a cake, you’ll need eggs, flour, sugar, butter etc. They are vital ingredients in themselves. They also all have their own function in creating a delicious baked good. Team members need to have chemistry, like these ingredients, to become more than a sum of individual parts.
Teams bring like-minded people together, but as humans, we are also intrinsically different. It’s not just about the skillset. It’s also about perspective. Different perspectives can help us overcome our unconscious biases, where our brain automatically makes quick judgements based on our experiences.
Collaborating with different people can increase group innovation, productivity, and creativity. Some people are more detail-oriented, while some look more at the big picture. Both are great qualities in themselves, but are complementary together. Different perspectives can also ensure inclusive experiences when it comes to building a fantastic product.
If people had the same weaknesses, the team would crumble. If they had the same strengths, people would compete rather than collaborate. Homogeneity in teams is not ideal. Although sameness conceptually helps in building comfort within a team, too much similarity in personalities and perspectives can hinder creative progress.
Also, not only will people 'complete' each other in their diversity, they can shift workload when needed. This reduces the likelihood of burnout, and keeps everyone on their A-game.
Creativity as a Collective
Creativity is vital to innovation as well, so how can one be creative? By getting inspiration from different people. A simple conversation involving active listening can already make you more creative. By crafting a thoughtful response to what’s said, you are engaging in creativity.
Fleshing ideas out through speaking can also refine them, although not everyone may feel comfortable speaking out within a group. With interactive tools and asynchronous idea generation before a collaboration session, everyone can provide their unique insights.
At BOOQED, for example, we do group brainstorming using tools like Miro, braindumps and strategy research on Notion, and daily standup notes on Slack. This way, we can rely less on everyone being able to verbalize during real-time meetings where some contributions fall through the cracks.
Collaboration VS Competition
Collaborative competition can be helpful when innovating. As Darwin's theory of natural selection can illustrate, only the strongest will be successful while the others fail. It is in our human nature to compete and want to win, hence, that sense of adrenaline when there's a challenge to be met.
Healthy competition like team sports is a good example of collaborating to compete. Teams cooperate to compete with other teams. This builds morale, teamwork, and accountability skills for all members. When they win, they win together. When the outcome doesn't go in their favor, then they can think through how to do better next time as well.
Still, competition brings out the best, and at times, the worst, in teams. When we compete, we feed off other ideas, in the goal of emerging one step ahead. But in teams where members are mostly individual contributors, or have a shaky company culture, it can build resentment and a sense of needing to one-up others.
Competition, when deployed well is great. But all in all, competition suggests a win-lose situation, while collaboration can be a win-win for all. Thus, collaboration promotes healthier relationships among teammates, which leads to stronger bonds and feelings of trust.
That’s why dedicating time to team building is important. It helps teams acknowledge quirks as their special sauce, and not as flaws or deficiencies.
Innovation = Creativity x Risk Taking
Creativity can be achieved through inspiration from others, as well as from previous triumphs and defeats. Risk is taken when a company takes the road less traveled.
These are only possible with teammates that you trust to do their part (and more), and who are all enabled to work well together each and every day.
Innovation isn't easy, but you can pull it off with the right people.
Stay tuned for part two of this article to learn more about how you can set your team on the right path for collaboration!
Collaborate with BOOQED
Teamwork starts in the workplace. BOOQED offers flexible workspaces such as meeting rooms and hot desks to help you and your team build and brainstorm together. We operate spaces you can book on-demand in Hong Kong, Singapore, Shenzhen and Shanghai. Download our app now - available in Android and iOS!