Thursday, July 11, 2024

Collaboration – the secret sauce of innovation

In recent years, the term innovation has infiltrated management-speak.   For some it is synonymous with creativity, though creativity is an individual capability that differs from person to person.   Innovation is actually a process of experimentation that combines creativity with experience to better address challenges.  Innovation improves the quality of life for organisations, stakeholders, communities and individuals.

“Innovation is not a single event, but a long journey of exploring and integrating diverse knowledge.”
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Author and Harvard Professor

Innovation will benefit from, and arguably needs, participation from a cognitively diverse group rather than an individual.  Organisational challenges can be complex, so the odds of finding innovative solutions rise when more than one type of creativity and a range of experiences are applied.

Everyone is unique.  One person’ creativity may possess manifest in solving real and immediate problems with great pragmatism, while another’s may generate left-field ideas at a complete tangent to any immediate issues.  Differences in life and professional experience also bring fresh perspectives.  Without this kind of diversity there’s a risk of getting the same old same old…

“We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking we used when we create them”

But how do you achieve cognitive diversity if you have a homogenous, stable workforce?

Well one way is to recruit for greater diversity.  Few organisations are enlightened enough to do this strategically, so it’s a smart way to gain advantage over competitors.  As it happens, due to the shrinking pool of talent in the jobs market, many organisations are  being forced to recruit outside of their intended focus anyway.  This may be no bad thing if it is done astutely and seen as an opportunity.

Another way (albeit considered less often), is for innovators to connect with others outside their organizational boundaries.  Technical innovators are rightly reticent about discussing technical challenges externally in order to protect intellectual assets.   But most senior technology executives will readily admit that tech challenges are typically the easy ones.  The tough ones are usually to do with the evolution of systems and processes, and dealing with people dynamics.

You’d think it’s a no-brainer to encourage innovators to meet and talk across organisational boundaries about these “softer” yet trickier issues.  However, there’s a fly or two in the ointment.  In the tech world, innovators are not always conscious of the role non-tech elements play in the challenges they face, even when they impede progress.  Added to this, many tech innovators are introverts – they can maintain a laser-like focus on the detail of the tech aspects of product development, but reaching out to talk to strangers about broader non-tech issues can take them outside of their comfort zone. To “get out there” can for them, be quite hard work and when under pressure to perform and deliver, it can go right against the grain.

But sometimes they get it.  The wiser more experienced innovator may have learned over time that it makes sense.  Younger innovators from the naturally more collaborative Y generation don’t question its value.  Both realise that the courage and effort involved in putting themselves out there to have friendly conversations with other innovators from different environments is more than offset by the rich rewards – mindsets are loosened in a gentle non-threatening way, inevitably boosting their own creative juices, and generating valuable serendipity.  Plus once there, they find it’s enjoyable!

The Cambridge dictionary defines collaboration as “the act of working together”, and Merriam-Webster defines it as “working jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavour”.  The word originates in the mid-19th century and comes from the Latin col and laborare, to ‘work together’.  By taking action to get out to meet with, and then do the respectful work of listening to one another, innovators are in fact collaborating.

Tech innovators who collaborate in this way are doing important work that will benefit their organisation.  Plus they themselves are enriched through exposure to different styles of creativity, different life experiences, and different organisational culture approaches.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions”

The critical components here are having conversations with others to think together with the intention to enhance understanding of shared challenges.  Solutions tend to follow naturally back in the workplace.  Meanwhile, trust is built with fellow-collaborators.

Indeed trust matters inside organisations too – more than ever.  With hybrid working, many organisations report a sense of growing fragmentation both between the layers of the hierarchy and across silos.  Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy says that we form a view of someone’s trustworthiness within seconds and that we assess two factors – warmth and competence.  Interestingly it’s not competence we prioritise – it’s warmth.

In cavemen days, “it was more important to figure out if your fellow man was going to kill you and steal all your possessions than if he was competent enough to build a good fire”.
Amy Cuddy

What happens to the perception of warmth when we are rarely in the same room as our colleagues, and instead see them virtually?  Over time the reduction in the lived experience of warmth must have a cost.  Commitment both to the organisation and to colleagues is likely to suffer.  And yet cross-organisational trust is essential for innovation and for making imperfect systems work.  Could many organisations be looking at an inherent performance degradation over time, exacerbated as older more connected employees retire?
If you’re a leader, it’s important to be considering how to mitigate this and be planning ways to bring people together across hierarchies and silos to better understand and resolve the challenges facing the organisation.

The conclusion?  Collaboration – internally as much as externally – is the secret sauce of innovation.  Not paying attention to it, is a high risk strategy in a hybrid world.  It may need to be carefully engineered and facilitated, but the rewards should be well worth it.

Siobhan Soraghan BSc MBA
Director, Active Insight; Curator, the Innovation Network
wisdom at work