How many people does innovating need?

Innovation is a contact sport” is one my favourite quotes about innovation (AnnaLee Saxenian). 

It refers to the fact that the innovation process (all the way from idea to implementation) always involves a team: inventors, designers, manufacturers, financiers, suppliers, stakeholders, customer focus groups etc.  Even if you invent the idea on your own, you can’t innovate without that interplay with other people.

This leads us to another favourite quote: people who are connected into many different networks “are at a higher risk of having a good idea”.  Professor Ron Burt described this as part of his work into how people are socially networked and the impact that has on their lives and achievements.  “Where Good Ideas Come From” author Steven Johnson also neatly summed up this phenomenon as “Chance favours the connected mind.”  There’s no doubt that connectivity and teams are a positive factor in innovation. 

But not always.

I have a friend who is studying for a PhD in social anthropology, specifically into ‘how ideas develop’.  She’s focusing on arts environments, where one artist’s single-minded approach is often what makes the finished piece so edgy and remarkable.  “Designing by committee” might have produced something worse – a diluted, blander copy of the artist’s original vision.   

There’s a whole body of academic research (such as this) showing that when it comes to brainstorming, you’ll get better quality results if individuals are given the chance to think about ideas on their own, before they come together for the group brainstorm.  This hybrid model, combining both individual and group efforts at generating ideas, shows that some individual reflection gives more depth and value to the group exercise.

Having said all that, your ability to have ideas when thinking alone will always be influenced by the sum of all the other ideas, opinions and information you’ve acquired from other people throughout your life – which brings us back to connectivity and networks.

I think the answer is to keep on enhancing your connectivity and personal networks, but recognise those occasions when you need some time alone to think things through in depth.  ‘Contact sport’ still sums it up – individual team members need to train and improve their own skills, but it’s the team that wins.

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