As most of you know I have a degree in sociology which I am very proud of – I find it fascinating how people work in society and how individuals operate in those environments. A few of my posts here have been a product of that interest and continued passion. I recently came across this article on Culturnicity about team vs. individual ethnographic studies and it got me thinking about the similarities to innovation in general. Before you go too much further, please go read the article so the rest of my analogy makes sense…
Seriously – go have a read, it is short and worthwhile. The general idea in the article is comparing the pros and cons of using a team to accomplish the same goal of a longer individual study but in a shorter period of time. Anthony over at Culturnicity walks through how categorical and geographical research can benefit and perhaps not benefit from a team working on the research project vs. an individual spending the extremely long time working on the same project. I want to draw your attention to the pros and cons that Anthony lists as I walk through the analogy to software innovation…
That each member of the team only has to focus on one cultural category means the category can be intensively researched without distraction. It is surprising how much information can be found on one topic in a week’s time. Furthermore, team members can share contacts so members save time by not having to always set out with a blank slate. Finally, the ethnographic write up comes together more seamlessly because each team member only has to write up their one cultural category. Each small paper can be combined to form the more comprehensive ethnography.
The major concern is that each team member has the ability to understand and ask the right questions related to their topic of inquiry. If all members do not have formal anthropological training, several team training sessions prior to the research trip can help. However, the research will be more accurate when members have the proper background and training.
This equates pretty similarly to what is occurring in the software industry these days. The team based approach Anthony describes is similar to what I observe where many different startups (each startup would be analogous to a member of the “team”) go after a feature or set of features that they are interested in which is in difference to a single firm (where the single firm is analogous to an individual). The different members focus on one category intensively and iterate their understanding and ability to develop quality features over time while an individual would look at the same problem and may or may not focus as intently on a single feature because ultimately the group think or group prioritization mechanism would eradicate any deep focus from the product. Additionally the advantage is that the individual members behave as their own companies and vet every change to their product against the market; while, a larger firm acting as an individual has no way to truly vet a single feature against the market to understand what the dollar value of the time spent on a feature truly is.
This is pretty obvious if you look at startups like Gist… it was a truly best of breed product. There was nothing like it on the market and the team working on it focused deeply on the problem of managing relationships with people. This was a good thing as there were no individual firms that had the foresight to see that this was a problem that should be invested in despite many firms being well established and trying to innovate in the space. Gist had the freedom to explore the feature deeply and focus on it over several iterations, both proving it against the market and improving the capabilities based on real customer usage and feedback. Research In Motion could have made the investment and built a similar product, so could have Salesforce.com, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. All of the above have spent a significant amount of time and energy in the space and have an amazing number of brilliant people looking at the problems there. The difference as Anthony points out is that they are busy on other things at the moment and yes – they will probably get there – but it will take time…. A lot of time. This is where the concept of the team approach makes sense and the value of the feature startup really makes sense. The focus and technology innovation that happens because a small group of people are willing to put their neck out and go after a problem are heavily rewarded in these scenarios and ultimately the understanding and knowledge in the space is advanced.
The con of course is that the different team members don’t have the ability or training to leverage their focus and create a product that can be integrated with other members. In other words the M&A that occurs by startups with a lot of money or by larger firms ends up being wasted or more of a talent acquisition because the products themselves have no way to integrate easily with other features that startups are building as products. This used to be the case a lot, look at all those Cisco and Microsoft acquisitions that haven’t yet integrated or took several release cycles to be somewhat integrated. It is changing now somewhat because of a general industry trend to make products less integrated and islands on their own with well-defined integration points and APIs.
This concept of a single long term project by a single firm vs. many smaller projects by smaller firms extends to direct hiring as well. All of these smaller teams have unique cultures and nuances that are or should be a factor of their hiring decisions. Often investors ask a startup to take on ‘senior’ team members to add a little experience to the team despite the fact that those more ‘experienced’ people aren’t on board culturally, motivationally, or technically with where the startup is going. This is no different than the kinds of ideas a bunch of individuals would come up with on an ethnographic study vs. the single driving idea that a single researcher would press through the entire project. Like that single researcher, a larger company may hire good culture fits and promote from within and as a result have an old boys club, an inability to accept new approaches and an eventual need for drastic changes to stay aligned with the time.
It is interesting to think about how these things like team dynamics and how the source and organization of ideas influence the end result – without thinking about them specifically, it is hard to understand how to change them directly.