Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Teamwork or Collaboration?

While teamwork might get things done its collaboration that drives change 

I read an excellent blog last week by Andrew Campbell and it really got me thinking.

I have always used the words ‘teamwork’ and ‘collaboration’ pretty much interchangeably.  I’ve never thought about the difference between these two words.  But the more I think about it the more important it is if we want to innovate effectively.   

When my football team (come on you Spurs!) recently beat north London rivals Arsenal, they did so not because of great skill but great teamwork.  But not collaboration – to say the players ’collaborated’ to win sounds just, well it just sounds odd. 

By the same but opposite token when my buddy Dave Green, CEO of Harvard Bioscience (see my earlier blog on 25th July 2011: Disruption - A case of 'when', not 'if') innovated the world’s first human trachea he was collaborating on steroids.  He reached out and initiated conversation with a range of partners none of whom really knew where they were heading, who was in charge and what the rules of the game were.  Collaboration yes, teamwork no.

So teamwork has boundaries (90 minute game), it has rules (a referee, the offside rule – which I still don't understand), every ‘player’ has a role and is aligned around what victory looks like (you get one more goal than your opponents).  Collaboration is a different kettle of fish.  The boundaries and rules are created as the game unfolds, roles are unclear and objectives often opposing.  Somehow it’s a messier, more chaotic way of working.

I’m kicking myself over my arbitrary and thoughtless use of these words. The implication for innovation is enormous.  New stuff happens when a new game is defined, when irritating, provocative people spike you to go somewhere you’ve never been before.  New stuff happens when you connect a bit of what you’ve got with a bit of what someone else has – even if you don't much care for each other.  Teamwork by contrast is pretty allergic to grit in the oyster.  By definition the team has to hold back, to pass the ball unselfishly.  The rules are set, we know what winning looks like. Provocative and punchy ideas aren’t really championed, uncomfortable relationships with outsiders aren’t sought out. 

If you look at how Apple have become the worlds greatest serial disruptive innovators, it’s through collaboration.  Many separate parties, figuring out the power balance as they went, most of them with competing agendas but all of them realising that together they might just be bigger than the sum of the parts.  In contrast take a look at the kind of innovation that customers barely register; a new lemon variant of that detergent we’ve bought for the last 30 years, a bank account accessed on line, a hotel that has in room check in.  Undoubtedly it’s teamwork that’s brought these to market.

So maybe it’s as simple as this. Collaborate to innovate disruptively and ‘teamwork’ to innovate incrementally?  The bolder the outcome desired the more you need to recruit collaborators and dump the team.  What’s the action for innovators?  I think it’s 1.) get crystal clear on your innovation goals 2.) if the answer to that question was that you want to innovate big time then take a look at your team.  Conventional management theories tell us we need a team, but I’m not so sure.  I think you need a small band that’s hard to manage, hard to hear, hard to be around.