To share or not to share, an innovation dilemma

In the current hype of success stories about new startups redefining the way we communicate, enjoy content, advertise and exchange of goods, the inner story about how they set their products apart is not much known. In a world as connected as we have it now and with people more and more losing their uniqueness in exchange for a global homogeneous perspective, where do you find the unique ideas that can demolish old industries and solve the great problems of the present? What are the conditions necessary to get you closer to a level of diversity that could provide the right germination environment for truly different ideas?

The product has to be unique, it has to have elements that allow it to differentiate clearly from any current competitor or close substitute, and then and only then, you can consider being a contributor of innovation. For the few reaching this stage, it seems some of them started on their own and were in stealth mode for a long time, some of them were part of a startup community that helped them validate their idea before any hurdle or setback came to challenge them, what is the most appropriate mode? Should you be looking to produce inventions of your own relatively isolated, or open completely to the group for help?

Let’s qualify. The option of completely isolated is not like it sounds, because even in Mendel’s monastery days (a monk kind of isolation) he was regularly corresponding and exchanging his early genetic ideas with a group of enthusiasts in the same field, he did his work alone but the ideas current was flowing. You can say the same for Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin — using innovators I’ve read a bit of. They had a network of colleagues not necessarily helping in their ideas, but whom they use to bounce thoughts with, mostly by correspondence, and sometimes by visiting each other just to share intellectually. In our Google, Wikipedia, Skype, YouTube current reality, one can work in a remote exchange mode way more efficiently than 19th century style. If you know what you are looking for, there surely would be torrents of information and people (mostly strangers) to exchange ideas with and qualify your thoughts. In some cases you can even test your product ideas live with a few thousand people at a time, tweaked then and improve little by little with the wonders of not even having to share what underpins your little business or your long-term vision. In the past, it seems an innovator was not that much concerned of sharing too much, because finding the right person to share ideas with was a very difficult task, and when they found them sharing was a must. In the current days, finding people with even the most obscure of hobbies is a few clicks away, at this right moment there might a few hundred people working on the same exact idea you are working on, and probably aiming at the same market. Can you really not pay attention to what you share in your innovation efforts?

The stories of inventors, artists, and business people who were the true origin of an idea but never were able to get benefits out of them, as they were stolen, copied or just simply brought faster to market by a competitor abounds. There has always been a dilemma in how much secret an innovation needs to be, to balance the benefit of the individual that produced it, and the public that needs its applications. But beyond being beaten to the finish line, there is this other risk while working and sharing with other people of being too similar in your method to conform to the group, even in an entrepreneurial and diverse one, because innovating independently seems too hard a toil not to be shared it with others. It’s like a concave curve, where a group of innovators loosely connected is better than individuals working alone (left negative side of the curve), but taken to the next level working closely might mean losing the diversity of method and thinking that was the raw material for innovation (right negative side of the curve). The group always asks for stability and social norm conformity, disregarding whether it’s formed from the most independent and diverse people, when put together, there is this social gravity effect that pull them to a shared common center of ideas. Diversity seems to be inversely proportional to the proximity between individuals, the more they can share in a loose remote way the better, the more they become closer the less diverse their ideas become.

But how that is true for the myriad of entrepreneurs in co-working spaces, incubators, accelerators and similar others, where the group seems to be working? Or is it? Benefits of crowd diversity, and sharing are actually not a given for any kind of group put together. The interaction has to happen in a certain manner for it to be better than the individual working alone. My introduction to this aspect of diversity comes from Scott E. Page work “The Difference”; he summarized a few conditions for diversity to be beneficial: “These for conditions — the problem has to be hard, the people have to be smart, the people have to be diverse, and the group size has to be bigger than a handful and chosen from a large population — prove sufficient for diversity to trump individual ability.” Therefore it seems to me that any entrepreneur group (from the co-working to the accelerator) that does not carefully chose the people who will be interacting in the group, and also they way they will be sharing, might actually be structurally working against the innovation that they are trying to promote. This aspect of some innovation spaces is regularly overlooked by the aspiring innovators and also by the groups looking to finance them. Some are different and clearly they have understood this aspect better than others, hear Y Combinator Paul Graham talking about how they choose their startups, and you will see many elements of Page definition of good diversity: Their ideas has to target a market potentially very big (difficult), guys have to be A quality (smart), people have to come from different backgrounds (diverse), and they seem to be opening to be bringing more and more startups by cohort every year (population representative). Don’t really know if they stumble to these conditions by trial and error or they might have purposely chosen to be ruled by them from the beginning, either way, they are the standard of grouping people towards innovation successfully.

Then how does it work best for the individual (outside the influence of the good innovation groups), if now you understand that not every group is better than working alone, and when you are still keen to fly high on your idea?

It seems that understanding how different individuals can help in untangling the issues in your journey through discovery is highly beneficial. Knowing how to tap diverse groups, without becoming part of them, and keeping your independence is a start. Making connections that raise the aim of your efforts and challenge your thinking to be smarter about the problem is a must, and keeping perspective of all the angles and the diversity of where your problem solving effort can be applied might be the final key to reach destination.

“Invention consists in avoiding the constructing of useless contraptions and in constructing the useful combinations which are in infinite minority. To invent is to discern, to choose.” Henri Poincaré

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