We all know that we can achieve more in a good team than we can alone. But in many teams, that idea is misappropriated to mean that teams should necessarily move more quickly than individuals can. After all, five developers can usually create a product faster than one.
The problem with this purely quantitative approach is that it misses the great potential of collaboration: innovation.
Using a team, rather than an individual, isn’t just a way to get things done faster, it’s also a way to do things better, and do better things. Gone are the days when innovation was handled by management. Smart businesses know that idea generation, prototyping and testing happens on the ground, on the frontline, at the coalface — whatever cliche you prefer.
When viewed in this context, the shorter timeframes implied by the increased capacity in a team must necessarily expand. Why? Because innovation takes time.
You don’t know what you don’t know. Innovators understand the value of research, through resources, other people, practical experimentation, and so on. And good research — the kind that’s thorough, creative, collaborative, and gives the innovator time to build prototypes and test cases to reduce the risk of innovation to the business — takes time.
An iterative philosophy of innovation might shorten the time it takes to get your innovative idea up and running, but it still takes time, as do subsequent iterations of the idea.
We can’t innovate in a vacuum. Team-based innovators need opportunities to speak with other team members, to debate, contribute, conduct more research and report back on their findings.
They need to understand how the innovation they’re proposing will impact others’ work. What parts of their idea can others piggyback onto? What parts present potential risks or dependencies for others’ inputs?
Reflection and Planning
Most team leaders love a good plan, but we can easily underestimate the value of reflection.
Once a team member has conduced research, and discussed it with others, that person will need time to reflect on all that information if they’re to formulate a solid working plan to implement the innovation. Multiply that work by the number of people collaborating within your team, and it’s easy to see that reflection is both important and potentially time-consuming.
It’s true that reflective time isn’t bounded by the restrictions of the working day, but that doesn’t mean we can avoid allocating time for reflection at work.
Through reflection, the team can anticipate problems, mitigate risks, and pull together the strands of teamwork to make the implementation proceed smoothly. Skimp on reflective time — or ignore it altogether — and your increase the risk of having good innovations fail.
Managing Multiple Inputs
Innovating solo avoids many of the hassles of effectively integrating multiple inputs — inputs that may themselves be innovative (and therefore behave unpredictably), or may need to be integrated within an unprecedented system or framework (which in itself is unpredictable).
In the one-man-band, you know what you’ve created, and you know how it all needs to fit together. But innovative teams must manage the unpredictability of their individual innovations (and the processes by which they are developed), the unpredictability of the innovative system into which they fit, and the unpredictability of their colleagues’ innovations.
Communication is never perfect: a team member may believe they understand how something will work, but be surprised when they finally see the finished component. Using a transparent approach to innovation is a common way to lessen the likelihood of this eventuality, but it also takes time.
Making Collaborative Innovation Efficient
Plenty of techniques and tools have been developed to help us innovate more efficiently and more successfully. But it’s important that we understand the nature of team innovation if we’re to get the most out of the models we choose.
People are central to this equation. Smaller, more tightly-knit teams may be less likely to see each other as “human resources”, but it’s still important to understand how team members develop ideas individually and together, and to allow sufficient time for the less-visible aspects of those processes to take place.
How do you manage the time your team takes to innovate? Are you using a specific model for innovative collaboration, or are you winging it?