Innovation is a team sport

As a consultant I’ve been working for a large number of companies doing system development. Many of them have had reasonably well defined processes for development, customer support and so on. Of various reasons I had recently reason to try to recollect how the companies did innovation. Somewhat to my surprise I couldn’t really remember many examples of how innovation actually happened. One company had regular “innovation jams” modeled after IBM’s idea with the same name. Many smaller companies still had their founders working for them, driving a lot of the innovation. One company had all their developers visit several customer a year to get new ideas and feedback on the current products. But i still fail to remember one single company with something like a comprehensive innovation process. (Ok, that doesn’t prove there isn’t one but still.)

I then came across the book Innovation to the Core by Peter Skarzynski and Rowan Gibson. It presents a systematic approach to innovation backed up by examples from companies like P&G, Whirlpool and GE. The one idea that appealed to me was that innovation is not typically done by a single genius getting an epiphany; an innovation is instead most often a mash-up of several already existing ideas brought together by a team of different people i a creative dialog.

Diversity and connected minds

Two prerequisites for innovation emphasized by the authors are thus diversity of thinking and a rich web of connections and conversations between people. On a large scale this is exactly what is happening in Silicon Valley. I remember when I was on a training at Haas Business School at Berkeley back in 2009. At our lectures there would be venture capitalists, industrialists, innovators just dropping in and talking to us, many seemingly out of curiosity. I’m sure they had some sort of other business at the university as well and that some of the seemingly random visits were prearranged but still. The people that dropped in took the opportunity to meet people with other perspectives, i.e. us (and perhaps to get e free lecture by a prominent researcher).

Another thing about Silicon Valley that comes to mind is its diverse population. There are many accents, nationalities, lifestyles etc represented in the multitude of companies found in the San Fransisco Bay Area. Research done by Duke University shows that immigrants helped found more than one-quarter of all U.S. engineering and technology companies between 1995 and 2005. According to TechCrunch a full 52% of the startups in Silicon Valley were founded or co-founded by foreign entrepreneurs.

Research done by Richard Florida of the University of Toronto has shown a positive correlation between the number of same-sex couples and concentrations of high-tech businesses. He states:

A visible LGBT community [signals] openness to new ideas, new business models, and diverse and different thinking kinds of people—precisely the characteristics of a local ecosystem that can attract cutting-edge entrepreneurs and mobilize new companies.

For one good idea you need many bad ideas

As every venture capitalist will testify, to find one or two ideas that really take off, you need one thousand ideas to choose from. The idea selection process needs to be very cost effective to be able to handle a large number of ideas without killing the few good ones.

Also important to remember is that an idea is usually not perfect when it is first conceived. It needs to be iterated over and over. Another book, Innovation: The Five Disciplines for Creating What Customers Want by by Curtis R. Carlson describes a process for iterating ideas at “watering holes”, diverse groups of people, for sometimes up to 50 times before the idea gets really mature (if it ever does).

There is of course much more to be said about this and there is abundant literature on the topic. I do find a little bit of comfort in the fact that research shows that good ideas require teamwork. That explains perhaps why my solitary armchair invention sessions have usually produced frustratingly little.

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