Opinion: from the Wright Brothers to Apple and Google, great collaborations have not conformed to expected norms but instead redefined them

History provides many examples of interesting collaborations that have made their mark on the world, re-defined what is possible and upended how things are done. While solving an immediate problem, collaborations have created a lasting impact and reach that may not have been imagined.

We know many great partnerships by name: John and Paul, Ben and Jerry, Jobs and Woz, Larry and Sergey and indeed, Wilbur and Orville. Like many great partnerships, the Wright brothers weren't lucky, they were a unique combination. Their intellectual interests spanned mechanics and maths, art and biology and their conquest of air drew upon their accumulation of knowledge as well as their large supply of imagination and bravery. 

Their eureka moment, when they first took flight at Kittyhawk in 1903, was the result of both dedication and curiosity. For example, the brother’s bicycle repair business funded the painstaking development of their first prototype and it was Wilbur’s reading on the anatomy of birds that informed their flyer’s control system which mimicked the movement of bird wings.

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From RTÉ Archives, Carole Coleman reports for RTÉ News in December 2003 on the centenary celebrations of the first powered flight by the Wright brothers in North Carolina

For great groups or partnerships, invention usually follows a period of time working closely together. Even lone inventors are more likely to invent when they have collaborated closely in the past with others. Exposure to mentors, diversity of experience and exposure to how others work are influencing factors. James Dyson collaborated in his early career designing the Sea Truck, but his vacuum idea came after he saw industrial cyclones sucking up sawdust at a local sawmill and his engineering instinct wondered if it would work at a smaller scale. 15 years and 5,000 prototypes later and the world had its first bag-less vacuum cleaner.

Existential threats, such as war, provide a purpose and urgency that demand a modus operandi that is other than business-as-usual. The code-breaking collaboration at Bletchley Park is thought to have ended the Second World War as much as four years before it might have otherwise been, thus saving countless lives. 

The impacts of Bletchley Park’s success reached beyond espionage and warfare, and resulted in the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer. Part of the genius of Bletchley Park was its physical location, adjacent to Bletchley train station, which provided a supply of inter-disciplinary code-breakers from Oxford and Cambridge universities, as well as connection to London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool to bring civil and military experts together in their top-secret pursuit. This axis point and melting pot of talent was a critical facilitator of creative collaboration.

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From The Film Gate, the story of Kelly Johnson and Lockheed's Skunk Works

Across the Atlantic at that same time, the US Department of Defence called on aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin to design a jet fighter to counter the Luftwaffe jets in just 180 days. Lockheed’s genius aircraft designer Clarence 'Kelly' Johnson took a hand-picked team and a radical approach to aircraft design completing the mission in 143 days.

What became known as Lockheed's Skunk Works produced America’s first supersonic jet fighter, the Blackbird, that flew three times faster than the speed of sound, and the long-range reconnaissance plane, the U-2. Not just a brilliant aircraft engineer, Johnson created a Great Group and a radical approach to innovation that could never have been achieved within the confines of business-as-usual at Lockheed Martin. 

This practice of side-stepping the bureaucracy and modus operandi has been successful for organisations such as the Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC), now part of Xerox and also employed by Apple, Google X, IBM and Microsoft. The observable practices of Great Groups over the course of history have not conformed to expected norms, but instead redefined them. The clarity of purpose and motivation that accompanies an existential threat or some other sense of collective mission tends also to have a time-bound element and a physical manifestation. Each of these things trains a narrow focus and high energy on a clearly defined output that matters greatly to both the individuals and to the world.

Diverse innovation clusters and inter-group collaborations across countries and sectors are increasingly bubbling up around the world

NASA is an organisation that has produced Great Groups, but has also struggled to maintain its relevance through the decades. Today, it has a vastly transformed role and remit to the one that first put a man on the moon over 50 years ago. 

Traditionally, work was highly classified at NASA, but recent years has seen the organisation opening up and embracing crowd-sourcing solutions as they recognise the vast potential for solutions to come from outside, rather than within the confines of the NASA walls. For example, they regularly host open challenges on crowd-sourcing websites such as Innocentive. In this way, organisations such as NASA engage the ultimate Great Group: the disparate, but talented minds and practitioners spanning disciplines, generations and geography.

Diverse innovation clusters and inter-group collaborations across countries and sectors are increasingly bubbling up around the world, most particularly in areas such as technology, healthcare, energy and the built environment. Creating this global petri dish for Great Groups to emerge, with the brave and imaginative solutions that are and will be needed, is not a bad idea at all.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ