Don’t Count Out Your Lone Innovators

Some Of The Most Disruptive Innovations Are From Lone Inventors

I was at an ideation session the other day where we gathered many people from all over the organization to come together and collaboratively develop forward-thinking productizable and patentable ideas. This client placed a high value on ideas generated collaboratively (who doesn’t nowadays?), even though they also had an individual inventor program.

During this session, where we were supposed to spend most of the session developing ideas collaboratively, one of the most prolific inventors in the company started furiously making notes, during the introduction of the meeting, and continued to all the way through the ideas session, until we were supposed to discuss our ideas collaboratively.

What had he been writing so furiously? All while we were talking about the kinds of ideas to generate, he had already taken in enough of the intro to just go ahead and start. He already had reams and reams of ideas generated by the time we’d started on the collaborative invention session. He was one of their best “lone innovators”.

We all get that it’s important to collaborate. We all get that there are many positive aspects to collaboration with groups and teams, and it’s important to be able to work in teams towards a shared vision and goal. This is common across all areas and industries – it’s been proven that collaboration leads to innovation.

Collaboration leading to innovation has been the main reason given by both Marissa Mayer and Ginni Rometty to call in remote employees. In fact, if you were an alien coming to Earth and just now getting to know humans, you’d think that with all this going on, watching humans grouping all the time, and the way we leverage the crowd in everything from social networks driving our sense of self-worth to networks literally driving us around, you might think that we are completely unable to ever do anything alone.

I’ve already blogged that we may even be seeing a new kind of human being evolving, the Homo Nexus, one who can’t exist in a world alone without the electronic touch of other humans, either directly or via proxy. Humans are becoming nothing without collaboration.

Or are they?

Humans are amazing, multifaceted, incredibly creative creatures. They come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and genders. They all have different personalities and attributes. Some are loud, some are quiet, some love being with people, feeling more energized in groups and teams, and others prefer quiet and alone time.

In our zeal to be ever increasingly collaborative (and for some reason we think that the more collaborative we are, the more innovative we are, but this is not necessarily so), we’ve forgotten that humans are all different, they are all energized by different things, and what can make one human amazingly creative can close the other one up.

Just like the best teachers need to touch students in all three sensory modes (visual, auditory, and kinesthetic) to connect with their students, we innovators need to ensure that we are inclusive when to comes to the all of the different types of innovators within our organizations.

In our exclusive invention architecture, we use exercises which target both “lone innovators” and teams, ensuring that we get the best from everyone and not just those who enjoy collaboration. Ideas from lone innovators can be just as good, or in some cases even better, than the ones generated by the teams. Sometimes the team members self-reinforce each other’s not-so-good ideas, just so that they can be good collaborators.

Notwithstanding our recent propensity to evolve to Homo Nexus, humans have not changed that much since the times of Edison, Bell, Franklin, Tesla, Babbage, and Berners-Lee, who may have leveraged prior work to come up with their world-changing inventions, but can still be considered lone inventors.

I’m not saying collaboration doesn’t have a place in innovation, but maybe it’s just not as important as you think. Don’t discount the lone innovator – they need just as much, or in some cases, even more, care than the teams of innovators do.

Lone innovators, in their isolation, can sometimes even come up with the most disruptive ideas. And those are the ones you really need.