The Case Against Collaboration, Part II

July 5, 2010
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Homer

Homer

In my previous post, I discussed some of the people-oriented limitations of collaboration. (Thanks to all of those who commented, by the way.) In short, from staffing and teamwork perspectives, sometimes the costs of collaboration exceed its benefits. Now it’s time to talk about some of different types of limitations: those that involve innovation.

Innovation, The iPod, and Homer Simpson

It’s hard to talk about innovation these days for very long without mentioning the widely lauded Apple at some point. I’m a huge iPod user and would have the device surgically attached to my hip if it were possible. My appreciation for the device grew further while reading The Cult of iPod by Leander Kahney. Clearly, Steve Jobs knows what he wanted to create, and he’s hardly alone. Ken Auletta’s excellent book Googled details how Larry Page and Sergey Brin rarely strayed from their overall vision in creating a revolutionary search engine. Read about the history of WordPress and you’ll find that a relatively small group of people forked cafelog back in 2003.

Of course, not all innovations and inventions are well-received, even if they’re driven by dynamic leaders with strong personalities and clear visions. Consider The Simpsons, one of my very favorite shows. I’m an especially big fan of the early episodes. In the episode “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” (season 7), Homer works at his estranged brother’s car company (Powell Motors). His charge: to build a car. Of course, Homer knows nothing about how to do this and, in the end, creates a monstrosity that bankrupts his brother.

This is not to say that anyone ever called Homer a “dynamic leader with a strong personality and clear visions.” (Okay, maybe Barney did in a drunken stupor.) Nor do I mean to imply that “successful” innovations are merely and exclusively the product of a leader. While hardly a definitive list, here are some of the reasons that innovations are surpassed or never gain tractions:

  • Some products are ahead of their time. Think the Newton.
  • Some products are not marketed well or properly.
  • Some products are quickly made obsolete by newer or better technologies.
  • Some products are crushed by competitors with bigger pockets. Think Netscape.
  • Some products are just horrible creations that should never have seen the light of day. Consider Motorola’s $5B disaster with the Iridium, painfully detailed in the fascinating book Billion Dollar Lessons.

Recognize the Tension Between Innovation and Collaboration

Regardless of how many developers, coders, R&D folks, or other smart cookies are involved, there are simply no guarantees with regard to innovation. Via crowdsourcing, companies such as Innocentive are doing amazing things to spur innovation, involving the masses in truly dynamic ways.

Remember this: Whether building a new widget or creating a new data model, many projects and products are successful precisely because one person–and only one person–is calling the shots. At the same time, there are limits to what one person can accomplish.

This is not to say that two or ten or 100 people cannot work effectively and build something amazing from scratch. They can. Just understand that creative types often have vastly different thoughts, opinions, and beliefs about what to do, when and how to do it, and how to gauge success. Keep this in mind when deciding on the “right” amount of collaboration. Having too many chefs may do more harm than good.

Feedback

What do you think? Do your organizations’ products or projects lend themselves to collaborative innovation?

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