On Collaboration and Innovation

I was privileged to be a part of the 2017 FirstRand CodeFest, organized by the FOUNDeRY at RMB. People from various backgrounds – technical and business – from across the various brands within FirstRand came together for 48 hours of intense collaboration, coding, and innovation. In essence, a bunch of really smart people got together to do some really cool things.

At CodeFest, I spoke to several people and teams about the projects that they were working on – some incredibly innovative ideas, involving (among others) AI, machine learning, and cryptocurrencies. As we were having these conversations, I was amazed at how quickly everything started evolving – as soon as there’s an idea on the table and people start talking about it, more and more ideas start flowing freely.

This got me thinking about two important topics – collaboration and innovation, and the relationship between the two.

In this post, I want to discuss my thoughts on these key statements:

  • Groups promote innovation.
  • Ideas evolve with discussion.
  • Crazy ideas are worth talking about.
  • To get ahead, innovate at scale.

We all know that the world is evolving at a  rapid pace, and it’s hard (but not impossible) for any one person to make a significant contribution. However, when groups of smart people come together and start talking, amazing things happen. Even more so when smart people with crazy ideas come together.

In the 1940s, Lockheed Martin assembled a bunch of brilliant engineers, got the bureaucracy out of the way, and started Skunk Works. They produced a new fighter jet in record time.

In the 1930s and 1940s, a bunch of authors got together to talk about their work. Among others, that group contained J.R.R Tolkien (author of The Lord of the Rings) and C.S. Lewis (author of The Chronicles of Narnia) – and they went on to produce amazing works of literature. As humans, we’ve realized the value of focused collaboration in small, highly-skilled groups a long time ago already – although it seems that we forget about it far too often and think that we can do great things on our own, or worse, force our staff into doing great things on their own.

Furthermore, collaboration doesn’t just help us to learn and achieve more – it also helps us to stay motivated. How many brilliant startup ideas do you have in the back of your mind that you just cannot seem to get off the ground? How would that change if you had someone else who was just as passionate about the same things?

When people from diverse backgrounds come together, they also bring different skills. These skills can help ideas evolve. For example, Bob likes share trading, Janet likes AI, and Grace knows a lot about integration with social media. When Bob and Janet start a random conversation, Bob learns that AI can be used to do sentiment analysis. Grace overhears the conversation and mentions that she can find loads of information on Twitter to do sentiment analysis on. Bob then says that sentiment analysis can factor into stock picks. Janet then jokes that a chatbot could pull information from Twitter, do some sentiment analysis on it, and then spit out the results. Before long, they’ve come up with a crazy idea: a chatbot that can respond to this phrase – “Hey, the festive season is coming up, find out which toys are going to be popular and then buy me $10,000 worth of stocks in the companies that sell those toys”.

Sure, this might not be a good metric for picking stocks. There might not be a strong business case for it. It’s a crazy idea and it might never be implemented… but, simply by talking to each other, three people have expanded their horizons and learnt about tools and approaches that they can benefit from in future endeavours. Imagine the potential that would be lost if Bob, Janet, and Grace were forced to sit at their desks all day long, only do what they’re good at, and never talk to each other.

So, why the emphasis on crazy ideas? Well, we live in a world in which big innovations can thrive. I think that the most important innovations are not the ones that make things slightly better – they are the ones that completely redefine industries – in other words, the crazy ideas. Crazy ideas lead to disruption. Crazy ideas say that we can have digital currencies that have no tangible form, or that we can have companies that allow people to loan or borrow money without ever having to talk to a bank.

Faster horses didn’t ferry humanity into the modern age. Uber didn’t make their mark by making the taxi industry just slightly better. Apple didn’t come up with the iPhone as something ‘slightly better’ than the mobile devices that preceded it.

In Bold, Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler refer to 10X improvement – i.e. when you attempt to make something slightly better, you start with what you have right now, but when you try to make something ten times better, you throw your existing assumptions away. You must start from scratch and approach the problem in a fundamentally different manner – and that’s when potential arises for great things to happen.

As for collaboration, the benefits extend far beyond cutting-edge innovation, right down into day-to-day operations. The Agile Manifesto emphasises the importance of collaboration and individuals and interactions, which is why agile development teams incorporate practices such as pair programming and mob programming. It gets people talking and working together; allowing them to capitalize on shared experiences and combined knowledge to produce high-quality solutions.

When people tackle a problem together, they can produce solutions that are significantly better than anything any individual could have produced on their own. When someone is sitting right next to you, working on the same problem, it’s harder to fall victim to analysis paralysis. A real-time back-and-forth discussion on problems and solutions allow you to work through the issues as soon as they pop up. Sometimes, all it takes to solve a problem is breaking it down into small components that you can explain to someone else, hence the benefits of rubber ducking. As a developer, all you need to do to see this in action is to visit a Coderetreat for a day.

In conclusion, here’s what I ‘d like you to take away from this post:

  • If you’re a developer – go to hackathons, talk to people that you wouldn’t normally talk to, have crazy ideas, get involved in the community, try to make things slightly better – and if you can’t, change your mindset and try to make them ten times better.
  • If you’re responsible for teams of people – encourage them to talk to each other, give them the opportunity to go to hackathons and community events, let them work together on everyday tasks, and provide an environment that is conducive to innovation – expand their horizons and teach them how to think big.

by Riaan Nel (Guest Blogger)




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