Better Than New

The Anti-Gravity Culture of Collaboration by morepete
July 5, 2007, 5:36 pm
Filed under: Innovators

Life is short; art is long. – Hippocrates

People love the story of the lone genius. The lightbulb, the falling apple metaphor of inspiration and innovation. It makes a great story. It makes us feel good about ourselves and capable of great things. These great men like Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs reflect the best in us.

They’re also more myth than reality. After all, Edison and Jobs have led innovation efforts by masterfully guiding teams, not through tinkering away at ideas in a garage until they produced the answer. Upon closer examination, almost every great innovation was not cobbled together by a lone inventor. High-performance teams put them together, refined them and brought them to market in collaboration. And the best teams endure past the membership of any single member.

That essential message is abundant in this brilliant New Yorker article by David Owen (unfortunately available only as an abstract online), recommended to me by Bill Scott, a fantastic collaborator in his own right. The article is ostensibly a profile of Cecil Balmond, deputy chairman of Arup, an unbelievably good structural engineering firm that works with every decent architect on the planet.

But when you scratch at the surface a little bit, you discover a tale of an incredible culture of innovation that has outlived its founder. Ove Arup created the firm that bears his name, but he died in 1988. Though it’s now his vision, not his decision-making that guides the company, Arup’s fingerprints are all over the organization, from the kinds of projects its people take on to the experiment in relations between members of the company.

Without question, Arup is one of the most innovative companies in the world. But what drives their success and their growth? How do they make the connections necessary to realize the visionary architecture of Rem Koolhaas? It’s not Balmond, though he’s a brilliant, diligent leader. Arup wins, time and time again, by playing to the strengths that have brought them here thus far. Ove Arup knew that he would be remembered, if at all, for what he created. Not just the buildings and bridges he engineered, though they’re often spectacular, but in the organization and culture he pioneered. That’s why, when Balmond retires, Arup will continue to be the best in the world.

They have a process and culture that endures beyond any single member. We should all be so lucky.


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