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Agoraphobia Meets Individual Genius

I read a really thought-provoking article from the Financial Post this week which was somewhat misleadingly titled "Innovation:  Group Dynamics Can Stifle a Great Idea."



I have to admit, I jumped right on this article, because in the Dark Days before I met Agile, I was one of those people (as perhaps you were) who always hated being forced to "work in teams."  Even today, I feel a slight twinge of fear when a speaker asks an assembly to "discuss [an idea] at your table," knowing this might be followed by a very awkward moment later on when some poor soul in each group will be forced to extemporaneously report on (or perhaps invent) it's "findings."  Perhaps some of you still fight off Fear of the Wisdom of Crowds sometimes too?

Of course the article does not actually say that "Group Dynamics" stifle "Great Ideas."  Instead, it points to research at Wharton which found that a group was best empowered to develop a great idea when some one individual, an "inventor" cast in the mold of an Albert Einstein or a Steve Jobs, had done significant thinking about the idea before laying it out in front of the group.  The study found that this hybrid approach worked better than group brainstorming alone.

We as agilists would add that the hybrid approach undoubtedly also works better than a command-and-control approach where the person with the bright idea orders a team to develop it exactly as invented, and then blames the team for failure to execute down the line.

Be that as it may, however, the Wharton research on the importance of individual brainstorming and initiative seems immediately applicable to many aspects of life on an agile team, particularly when it comes to the ideation and inception phases of a project, where the team first gets its overall sense of what the project is intended to accomplish.  Experience has shown again and again that we need a whole team to deliver a high-quality, valuable piece of software which will be robust for its normal life.

But in asking what the software should do and why, or even how, if a project is bringing innovation into an existing technology stack, we should not be too quick to insist that all ideas have to spring from the entire assembled membership of the group, and we should embrace our solo inventors.

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