Collaboration vs Innovation

You’ve probably heard the proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. It’s a powerful proverb if you know which you want, but what if you want both? There is an inflection point where you have to tradeoff between speed and progress.

I’ve seen a similar tradeoff between collaboration and innovation at startups. Teams often try to optimize for both by collaborating to develop an innovative solution. It’s a reasonable strategy for startups that want to gain market share but also want each member to gain knowledge for the future.

However, this poses a dilemma as innovation usually comes in the form of creative solutions, and highly collaborative groups don’t usually come up with the best solution. From the Improving the Rhythm of Your Collaboration study from MIT Sloan, “groups with constant interaction were the most consistent, producing a higher average quality of solution but finding the very best ones much less frequently.” In other words, solving a problem as a group will slow you down on your way to finding the most innovative solution.

The Problem at Startups

From my experience, I’ve seen startups prioritize either collaboration or innovation. Collaborative startups sacrifice creativity to ensure all members work together towards a solution. Innovative startups sacrifice teamwork in search of the best solution. Both are missing critical strategies that can improve their output.

Characteristics of Collaborative Startups

Some characteristics of startups that over-optimize for collaboration might include:

  • Group meetings for every stage of a project. Idea conception, fact-gathering, ideating, and iterating all involve meetings where everyone must be in the know and on the same page.
  • There is no free time to think away from your peers. There aren’t lengthy blocks of time where you can think without the influence of your peers (we’re talking days, not hours).
  • Having to communicate with your team on each instance of progress or every aspect of your day. This could include constant emails, slack messages, or any other form of communication used to build visibility and synergy.

While I am a huge fan of collaboration and involving my peers in the journey, these characteristics are harmful. Over collaboration can burden your team and take away from independent thinking. You’ve hired smart people to help drive your organization forward; you also need to give them the space to think through problems in their own environment and framework. For example, my best ideas come in the shower or on long walks. You would be underutilizing my skillset if I didn’t have space to do that.

Characteristics of Innovative Startups

Some characteristics of startups that over-optimize for innovation might include:

  • Organizations that value individuals who just ship code. These individuals tend to “cowboy” features and show the finished product but not the decisions or work that went into creating the product.
  • Individuals who create the most optimized and efficient solution without understanding the problem they are solving. This leads to creating a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist.
  • Organizations that fix problems for any customer that has an issue without considering the product vision. These one-off fixes display agility and the ability to solve problems, but in the long term, they can harm your business model and team productivity.

Innovation requires creativity, imagination, and out-of-the-box thinking, but these characteristics lack a foundational piece of context and information that stakeholders can gather. Of course, every company wants to be the most innovative, but the direction needs to come from experience or factual information.

Getting The Best of Both Worlds

To get the best of both worlds, we must be aware of two main learning actions. The first is the act of gathering information, and the second is the act of figuring out the best solution. The first act requires collaboration and the second act requires innovation. You need to make time for both in a harmonic rhythm. From the MIT study, “Groups that interacted intermittently — with a true rhythm of collaboration — broke the trade-off, capturing the best of both worlds rather than succumbing to the worst of either one.”

The idea is to create a space where your team can collaborate and take time away to use the information gained from collaborating to innovate. Collaboration will feed into innovation, and innovation will feed into collaboration creating a harmonic cycle.

Some ideas to create this harmonic rhythm:

  • Create true no meeting days that last more than one day. Makers adhere to the Maker’s schedule, not the manager’s schedule, and need more than a few hours to innovate.
  • Collaboration sessions should be to share factual information and learnings. This will allow the team to build off each other without biasing towards any one solution.
  • Encourage individuals to create throw-away prototypes, go backward, and break things. This fosters an environment where you can be nimble and react to new information and ideas.
  • Encourage documentation like technical specifications and RFCs. This allows the writer to communicate thoughts clearly and allows your peers to review and reference the doc at leisure.

I’ll leave you with this quote from the MIT Sloan study: “Too little communication, and there’s no learning and no synergy. Too much communication, and all the minds end up in the same place, focusing on the same types of solutions.”