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Secrecy works for Apple. And it might work for you too

Business 2.0 is all about openness, people and collaboration. Right?

But some are starting to question that philosophy. Is collaboration and transparency really the holy grail? Or is it in fact standing in the way of true innovation? 

Scientist, economist and author Ben McNeilBen McNeil believes this is often the case. He spoke at the annual LESI conference in Auckland yesterday, making the case for taking a step back from the public.

"There is no more important thing for humans than to innovate," he says.

 But while popular rhetoric encourages efficient, transparent and customer-focused operations, he says such methods don't foster creativity. Apple, he says, is proof that the opposite is true – operating in secrecy and delivering products without consulting customers. 

"We don’t know what we want until we get it."

 And as democracies become more transparent, we're becoming more risk-averse and increasingly shortening our attention spans, he says.

But entrepreneurship is about embracing failure and risking waste. McNeil says most people don't understand the innovation cycle and the importance of trial and error – that short-term failure means nothing in the long run.

That's the danger of involving outsiders, according to McNeil. Transparency places the final outcome at risk and long, costly, pioneering ideas and their creators may not survive.

"If you're a business person, entrepreneur or Steve Jobs, you have a wonderful idea. There's a long, costly, messy trial period called incubation and development. Then the final product."

 He cited visionary Sydney Opera House architect Jorn Utzon, whose career was "destroyed" by the project – scrutinised and criticised at every step, and ultimately compromised over the 14 years it took.

By contrast, McNeil says, the famously cantankerous Frank Lloyd Wright operated in a cloud of secrecy and produced works such as New York's famed Guggenheim.

If you make this all transparent, he says – not from a commercial point of view but from a communications and information perspective in regard to the wider society, you're risking the future of your product. In an age of instant communication and social media, truth and rumours like can spread like wildfire and spark reactions all over the world. And from a business perspective, McNeil says shareholders are already becoming increasingly impatient, especially as CEO tenures are shrinking.

"The public doesn’t need to know about the ugly, long innovation process behind the scenes," he says. "They're interested in the product, not the process."

That's why, according to McNeil, even collaboration has to happen in a somewhat closed or protected environment away from the public and media. The really big ideas, he says, don't come from polling and customer feedback – they come from within.