Think first, Collaborate second

Collaboration is over-rated. It’s important, but in today’s networked world, it is drowning out the value of reflection.

There is a pattern I see among some successful companies, as well as my own life. It is better to think over key ideas before discussing them. Unless you have clarity in your mind about what you think about a product, you won’t be able to build on it. Having a clear mental picture first not only helps in talking about it better, but also in listening better.

Because if the picture is not clear in your head, yet you start telling/selling it, it is likely that when somebody questions it, you get defensive, and hence are less likely to listen to valuable feedback, because you have no core against which to validate criticism, and the criticism of your idea can feel like a criticism against your identity.

This can be countered by structurally making sure that you think first, and collaborate afterwards. These are few examples I found which reinforce this position.

4-6 Page Memos: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos

While I have some conflicted feelings about Amazon’s culture from first hand reports, there is much to learn from their management practices. I have already written a bit about the press release, but now about the meeting memos.

In meetings at Amazon, every executive has to write a memo explaining their proposal. Jeff Bezos’ own words are best here:

The reason for writing a 4 page memo is that the narrative structure forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important, and how things are related.

bezos powerpoint

I recently finished my graduation at TU Delft and wrote, well, a 182 page thesis, and can vouch for the importance of clear language in not just expressing ideas, but in understanding ideas.

Brainstorming is insane: Venture Capitalist Tomasz Tunguz

Recently the VC at Redpoint, Tomasz Tunguz shared his thoughts with the provocative title Managers must be insane to brainstorm in groups.

We feel better and more productive in group brainstorming sessions, but in reality, we produce fewer ideas and of fewer quality.

This is quite compelling. Sharing ideas with people in a group feels better, maybe because no one has individual responsibility, maybe because there is a feeling of camaraderie if the group is engaged, but the final outcomes are poorer.

This is quite telling. If I could turn back time and do group projects again, I would insist on this approach. Many times in groups I remember feeling lost as the group was not on the same page. People had done different levels of research, and wasted time in looking for some kind of hierarchy. One or two extroverted people would set the tone, and the rest would follow in that framework. The projects would be much better if everyone had done some ideation before.

He ends the post on point:

But the simplest and most effective way to generate ideas remains working individually and then convening a team to sift through ideas.

Design of New Meaning: Prof. Roberto Verganti

In his book Overcrowded, Roberto Verganti explains how innovation of meaning can help in making radically new products. But what exactly is does this process look like? You guessed it right, he insists we first think of the new meaning individually. He says:

Autonomous reflection is important to enable everyone to first dig deep into her own insights, without watering them down.

He also mentions in this HBR article:

Generating lots of ideas works well for improvements, but it doesn’t help to spot new directions.

In his proposed process, he asks executives to think alone on what could be a new meaning for their products, and then engage with other team members on their ideas, and then, finally look at the users to clarify how that meaning is brought to life.

Creating an autonomous, individual meaning or vision also helps you to have a filter against which to evaluate the new ideas which come at you from the outside. Without such a filter it is extremely difficult to create innovative products.

Maybe the logic of Apple to be secretive in its product development is not that it does not want to know others to know its ideas, but it does not want to know other people’s ideas, at least not without first developing an internal coherent vision.

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