Collaboration for Innovation

June 24, 2010 Leave a comment

“Collaboration drives creativity because innovation emerges from a series of sparks – not a single flash of insight.”

Keith Sawyer, Group Genius


|Photo by Chris Denbow||

Having last week blogged about when we might want to de-emphasize innovation and think about the small steps we can take towards change, today I embrace the “i word.”  In doing so, I tip my hat to Keith Sawyer and to my Interaction colleague Andy Atkins for helping to clarify my thinking around the connection between collaboration and innovation for social change.  Both are obviously quite popular concepts at the moment, and there is some discussion about how well they go together.  For example, one of my colleagues had a conversation with a corporate leader last week during which this leader shared his deep belief that collaboration inhibits creativity and that flashes of insight occur in the individual’s mind.  While the last part of that statement may be true, what leads to that flash and where one goes with it would seem to have everything to do with interaction with others.

It certainly is true that collaboration can bog down the creative process.  I’m sure we’ve all had those painful and deadening experiences.  On the other hand, we have probably also had those moments of group “flow” during which amazing things happened.  The question is, how can we create the conditions that allow for such innovative moments to occur?

As Mr. Sawyer and my IA colleagues have noted, research shows that innovation has certain qualities, and that collaboration can be a nurturer of these.  Below are five of these qualities, along with some key questions for a collaborative effort/team to consider (thanks, Andy):

1. Iterative and Integrative – ideas build on each other over time.

  • Can we truly listen to one another’s ideas?
  • Are we willing to be influenced by one another’s ideas?

2. Born out of diversity – breakthrough ideas come out of differences of opinion and experience.

  • Can we have inclusive conversations?
  • Can we work with conflict, and ultimately build agreement?

3. Unpredictable and inefficient – a team may not know which ideas will ultimately be the breakthrough ones.

  • Can we tolerate ambiguity?
  • Can we facilitate a process of emergence over time?

4. Requires Flexibility – a team must be able to try a variety of things to give rise to innovation.

  • Can we tolerate failure?  (Can we be about improving over proving?)
  • Can we adjust plans and processes as needed?

5. Requires Trust – innovation requires an environment where people can trust one another.

  • Are we willing to let go of ownership and share responsibility for success?
  • Are we willing to ask for help and respond to requests for assistance?

All of these questions connect with key and core collaborative competencies, from establishing guiding norms to creative listening to structuring and facilitating conversations in appropriate ways.  And I’m wondering what you would add and/or highlight as being particularly useful in your experience. 

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  • Gibran says:

    These are great Curtis, I don’t have much to add to this list, but I do want to share two related things that come to mind:

    1. Reading Dan Brown’s “Change by Design,” I like how we talks about the role of small groups and creativity and his suggestion that it’s best to link or network small groups to each other than to try and innovate as a large group.

    2. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and some experimentation on ways to integrate the type of settings, spaces and processes that cultivate the attributes you list inside the life of the organization as opposed to only creating these at exceptional moments.

  • Bryan says:

    Hi Curtis – this is a great list! You hit to the heart of the large-scale collaboration challenges.

    To answer your question (How can we create the conditions that allow for such innovative moments to occur?), it’s not easy but it can be done, and we’ve routinely seen it done over and over again at large-scale companies. I work at Imaginatik ( where we help companies create these conditions for themselves. The overly short answer is: embed innovation in the corporate DNA, not leaving it to a dark corner or your organization that no one wants to visit. Here’s an example:

  • Tucker says:

    These are such important ideas to discuss. I don’t have much to add to your list, as I think you have good coverage there. This topic reminds me of “Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” I recently re-read this book and it is, in large part, about how we can collaborate to bring about the greatest success possible.

    I think your last point on Trust is the key piece. I believe strongly in setting some rules that all of the players have to adhere to and accept before any brainstorming or discussion can begin. Of course, there are times when discussion is had about the rules. The rules are about listening, creating an atmosphere of no judgement, open discussion, respectful challenging, etc. The bottom line is that if you have a group that comes to the table who understands that we are each a piece in the wheel of innovation with ideas that can and will spark ultimate success if we allow them to come to fruition, foster them, challenge them, respect them and then build on them.

    And for me, this all begins with leadership. The person who is leading the process has to create this atmosphere with the assistance of those around him/her. The Leadership Challenge is a great book and talks about “Modeling the Way” referring to the ability for leaders to set the example and “walk the walk” if you will.

    So in the end, I think we MUST have collaboration to have innovation, but we must collaborate in a way that fosters innovation in order for it to be as successful as possible. The leader must initiate the “fostering,” but the group in turn has to jump on the bandwagon.

  • Curtis says:

    Thank you Gibran, Bryan, and Tucker. Love the additional and extended thinking! Integrating small groups – yes! Embedding innovation in the DNA – so critical. And great points about the importance of leadership as fostering the right atmosphere of listening and critical creation.

    Something that intrigues me is how best to strike the balance and make decisions between structure and openness to foster new thinking. In my experience different groups at different junctures require different mixes of these. Thoughts?

  • Curtis says:

    Something else worth noting, our flagship course here at IISC – Facilitative Leadership, which my colleague Gibran Rivera just finished training, has I believe a lot to offer this conversation, especially as we are tweaking it to include more open and emergent tools and frameworks that allow more space for innovation. The old school collaborative problem-solving model still has merit, and it is well complemented (and perhaps challenged) by a different set of heuristics that are validated by decentralized and networked forms of collaboration (a la Gibran’s initial comment). Eager to see this course and our work evolve to embrace more of the whole, including dialogical and narrative forms of engagement.

  • Linda says:

    Great post Curtis. The one thing I’d add is that sometimes in social justice and social change context, agreement from conflict isn’t the point. Sometimes what we need is to live with the tension, learn to stay with each other and treat each other respectfully while respecting the need for the conflict. There are times when it’s critically important for the long term structural changes needed to not resolve a conflict, but rather to actively and respectfully engage it for the long haul.

  • Curtis says:

    Linda, great point. How then would you say innovation connects to such structural change efforts? Of course, we may be talking different definitions of innovation, or approaches to change altogether, which was kind of the point of my previous post. Innovation around technical change is certainly a different undertaking than innovation around adaptive change, or is it?

  • Bryan says:

    Curtis – to your first statement, “How best to strike the balance and make decisions between structure and openness to foster new thinking,” there are two things you can do: The first is to ask the right questions, adding focus right off the bat when you’re empowering people to be innovative. The second is to limit the approach in terms of time – Host an event over a few says as opposed to an open-ended event that tends to disintegrate over time. It seems somewhat counterintuitive – adding a tight structure while still expecting the creative juices to flow – but the end result is that your force the best ideas out of brains, not everything that may be rattling around in them.
    That gets to your second question – how innovation connects to structured change. I’m looking at innovation as a change that adds some value, so in this context technical change and adaptive change can be approached in the same way.
    Great discussion!

  • Curtis says:

    Bryan, I appreciate what you are saying about leading with inquiry (and using the RIGHT questions) as well as establishing constraints with respect to time. Thanks! Given how inefficient innovation can be, I see inquiry and constraints as helping to provide some fuel that prevents diminishing motivation.

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