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Throughout history, many valuable innovations have come not from a sole inventor tinkering away in his garage or laboratory but from the collective efforts of a team of people. Often the individuals in these groups are motivated by their devotion to an idea and to the collaborative process of working with others toward a common goal, knowing that their reward might be nothing more than the positive feelings that success breeds. They set out initially not with the thought of realizing a financial gain but rather to meet a challenge or solve a problem, and the resulting collaboration typically benefits those involved and sometimes even society as a whole. The swarming of bees is an archetype of this concept.1 With no central direction, bees self-organize to build nests, feed and nurture offspring, gather food and even decide on their next queen. Similarly, groups of humans swarming together for a common purpose can constitute a powerful collective mindset that unleashes tremendous creativity, spurring exciting and valuable innovations.
The famous example here is the development of the World Wide Web. Tim Berners-Lee, often credited as the father of the Web, and the countless others who worked on the effort were driven by an intrinsic motivation to tackle a technological challenge. If someone wanted to pursue a useful idea for extending the project — for instance, to include Web browsers and servers — the swarm embraced and supported the effort. There was no managerial hierarchy or proprietary ownership of ideas. Everyone cared deeply about the cause, not about rank, salary, status or money. They just wanted to get the job done, and in the end they changed the world with their innovation.
As the development of the Web exemplifies, selfless behavior is often the fuel that propels great ideas forward, and this sense of altruism permeates many successful swarm innovations. Indeed, members of a swarm typically reject the traditional business notion of building shareholder value as the basis for their decisions and actions. In its place, the swarm works toward the collective interest of stakeholders, which is broadly defined as any party that can affect or is affected by the innovation. From a business perspective, this includes more than just shareholders but also employees, customers, suppliers, partners and even competitors.
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2. P.A. Gloor, “Swarm Creativity: Competitive Advantage through Collaborative Innovation Networks” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
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