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:

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:

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:

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.”