Groups are the Ruin of Innovation

Brainstorming a solution to a problem  is a quick and easy way for small teams to solve small problems.

However, real innovation (innovation = invention + commercialization) is slow and hard.  This seems so obvious, why don't we stop the quick fix of a brainstorming, and concentrate on real innovation?  Because we are seduced by the apparent speed and seductive qualities of getting a team together.  And we are seduced by the solving of a small problem.  It is time we step back and see when, where and how groups are best used for innovation.

Because we are social animals, and we like to work with others to come up with concepts greater than we could have come up had we been working alone.  However, inventors are like artists (according to Steve Wozniak).  "Most inventors and engineers I've met are like me... they live in their heads.  They're almost like artists.  In fact, the very best of them are artists.  And artists work best alone..."  (From the Rise of the New Groupthink, by Susan Cain).

The Wharton researchers Terwiesch and Ulrich have found similar results, when brainstorming is greatly improved by having just part of the process take place at the individual level (Innovation Tournaments, HBS Press, 2009).  So how do you know when to use groups and when to go solo? Now, how do I leverage this? How can this be applied to my situation?

Suggested steps for solving big problems - alone:

  • Passion for solving the problem is paramount! Make sure you have passion.
  • Check for platforms/paradigms/schools/discussion groups (real and virtual) - stand on the shoulder of giants
  • Invest material, real time into it.  Every day. Real time alone.
  • Fail fast, fail often.
  • Bounce progress off others.  This is where groups make sense.  Checking/elevating, not creating (at least for big problems)

Start with finding an individual with passion, who leverages existing platforms, and ask them to dedicate real time in it.  When it shows signs of life, staff a team.  This is the second place where groups, not in the forms of a team, make a real difference.  Invention versus execution are two very different processes.

I'd recommend the New York Times piece by Susan Cain called "The Rise of the New Groupthink" to help you understand some of the background behind these principles.