Innovation – Is the team paying attention?

Marissa MayerYahoo CEO Marissa Mayer took a very controversial stand recently http://bit.ly/wrkfromHome. It got me to thinking about our business model, and why we choose to innovate in a traditional, collocated, style. I think there are some very good reasons why we do.

Innovation is rarely an “individual sport”. It’s rare to find someone who can turn a problem statement into an innovative product on their own. Innovation often usually requires collaboration. It thrives on the freedom to build upon the ideas (good and bad) of colleagues (and competitors)… and the faster the innovation process happens, the better. Ultimately, innovation only pays off when it turns into something real – something that matters. So the emphasis is on getting from theories to practice as quickly as possible. In the product development world, we call that “time to market”.

Like it or not, the “chemistry” that happens in a room – and the “serendipity” that happens when colleagues can quickly connect around an idea, is much easier when we are in close physical proximity. How many times has an idea drifted away because the conversation was delayed by a “busy signal”? How many conference calls have drifted into mediocrity because one or more of the participants disengaged (because it’s so easy when nobody has to make eye contact)?

Our business is built around new product development for aerospace, medical, and industrial markets. We design, build, and test new technology and then our customers depend on it – for years. Much of the “development” part of our business involves physically assembling and testing products – and that requires being “physical proximity”. Many of our innovative products also require unique skills and special processes. We work together to make complicated things happen quickly and consistently.

So, for our business and many businesses like ours. Working from home is not an option. For other business models that aren’t tied to a physical product, it’s not quite as clear. However, as much as I like the freedom to work from home, I’m not convinced that it’s the best solution. If “time to market” for a physical product is important for your business… working from home is probably NOT the best model.

I think Marissa Mayer has acknowledged a very important fact. If you want people to work together and get things done, you need to be sure that everyone is paying attention. “Telecommuting” allows the team to drift – to be “partially engaged” when the team needs them to be “all in”. I applaud Marissa Mayer for doing what needs to be done to get Yahoo back on track… starting with getting everyone to pay attention to the right things at the right time.

What do you think?