The Four Truths About Real Innovation

When we think of genius inventors, we’re still inclined to envision the mad scientist in his lab, or the lone Einstein changing the world as we know it. But the myth of the solitary genius inventor (Einstein collaborated frequently) no longer serves the tech community. In its place is a new understanding of collaboration, in pairs and groups, as the next big competitive advantage. In fact, chances are that a solo innovation effort will not be as successful as a partnered one. A new book, “Powers of Two” by Joshua Wolf Shenk looks at how the alchemical reactions inherent in creative team collaboration underpin truly transformative change. In an excerpt article, he takes a long look at the Lennon/McCartney and Jobs/Wozniak partnerships, among others. He even cites examples of creative endeavors between individuals deeply inspired by muses or a spiritual “other” — concluding that “The point is, we don’t create by ourselves, even when we’re alone.” Muses notwithstanding, there is compelling support for this argument.

Think of the most fun, most productive brainstorming sessions in which you’ve participated and you will more than likely remember who was in the room with you. And the ways in which you were challenged to keep digging deeper and expanding your patterns of thought. Though not a new concept, the term co-opetition is appropriate here to describe the benefits of what happens in groups comprised of folks with the desire to push themselves and their team members outward to new heights of discovery.

Co-opetition combines the advantages of both competition and cooperation into a new dynamic which can be used to not only generate more profits but also to change the nature of the business environment in your own favor. Real long-term business success comes not solely from competing successfully within your current industry, but also from being an active participant in shaping the industry’s future. That way, you can create opportunities for future success the way you want them to be, rather than simply making do with the way things currently are.

From Shenk’s article:
“The lone-genius myth prevents us from grappling with a series of paradoxes …”“that competition and collaboration are often entwined. Only when we explore this terrain can we grasp how such pairs as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy all managed to do such creative work. The essence of their achievements, it turns out, was relational. If that seems far-fetched, it’s because our cultural obsession with the individual has obscured the power of the creative pair.”
Paul and John “had a habit of “answering” each other’s songs. “He’d write ‘Strawberry Fields,’ ” Paul explained. “I’d go away and write ‘Penny Lane’ … to compete with each other. But it was very friendly competition.” It’s a famous anecdote. Paul, of course, was stressing the collaborative nature of his partnership with John (he went on to note that their competition made them “better and better all the time”).”

Most of us in tech face the challenge and sheer fun of incorporating and interpreting a constant stream of change into our work. And those with whom we collaborate affect this experience – not just via daily interactions, but also through maturing relationships that thrive on prodding one another to be at the top of our games. By its nature, this ‘encouragement’ often creates dynamic tension that can be difficult to deal with, but is also fertile ground for innovative breakthrough. Jobs and Wozniak brought very different personalities to the table. Nothing good comes easy.

Innovation team building in the product development field presents its own interesting set of opportunities. Some people are great at coming up with ideas, but not great about sharing them or allowing them to be explored. Some might be introspective and flexible, others more outgoing but perhaps not so willing to make the compromises necessary to actually produce a product or deploy an enterprise application. Teams representing varying skill sets and communication styles, teams of mixed gender and teams comprised of mixed generations have the best odds of arriving at stellar, disruptive innovations. It does indeed take all kinds.

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