Outwit, Outplay, Outlast: How Collaborative Innovation Can Change The Game

March 6, 2017

The popular reality TV show Survivor has been described as an exotic version of office politics. The contestants face challenges and vote to eliminate each other in tribal councils, which can be frighteningly similar to the way people operate in the workplace.

The program sets up a compelling contradiction that also exists in many workplaces. In order to “survive,” the participants need to collaborate with others and form close social bonds. Yet those who make it through to the end will also need to be ruthless individualists.

This apparently incongruous tactic can mirror contemporary corporate culture. While people are told they should collaborate in teams, they are often rewarded as individuals. So what happens when the decision for the group is not beneficial for the individual, or vice versa? It’s no wonder individuals are confused about where their loyalties should lie.

Particularly in the area of innovation—where the stakes can be high but the potential rewards are captivating—individual creative genius is often put on a pedestal. The winners in “the innovation race” are rarely recognized as teams.

Perhaps it’s time to change the game. Here’s how it’s possible to innovate more collaboratively:

Break out of silos

A McKinsey report has found that high-quality interactions within an organization lead to better innovation. The authors state, “Rewards for collaborating and for sharing knowledge…help the organization as a whole rise to the level of its best innovations.”

For example, while scientists for many years have typically worked independently in their labs, the emergence of the Internet has enabled better communication and collaboration. Diseases like SARS rapidly spread internationally while the scientists in each country worked in silos. Yet, as soon as they communicated and collaborated in finding solutions, it took only a few weeks to come up with one that worked.

To break out of silos: Try facilitating communication between potential silos, and reward resulting collaborative innovation efforts.

Build on brilliance

While we might typically celebrate famous inventors as individual creative geniuses, most have in fact built on the ideas of others.

Thomas Edison is credited with inventing the light bulb in 1879, but other types of incandescent globes had been patented as long as 30 years before by other inventors. The Wright brothers’ work on aircraft was imagined by Glenn Curtiss and others before their famous flights, and Charles Darwin’s ideas on evolution were built on those of Alfred Russel Wallace.

On the other hand, the petty feuds and backstabbing that can characterize an individualistic approach have blocked potential new innovations. The development of a cure for AIDs was delayed by about four years by trivial arguments over who was responsible for the discoveries.

To build on brilliance: Try creating collaborative spaces and opportunities for people to share and build on each other’s ideas.

Pass the baton

A common complaint in companies that struggle with innovation is that during the innovation process, when a project is passed to another department, the follow-through to implementation isn’t maintained.

This may require us to completely reevaluate the way we think about innovation as a “race.” “Innovation is more of a relay race than a marathon,” says Claudio Viggiani, director of social responsibility at ABIHPEC in Brazil. “The important thing is that a group of contributors, one relaying on the others, is able to hand off the baton at the right moment so the ideas can ‘progress’ smoothly until they become applicable realities.”

To pass the baton: Try setting up systems and structures that will ensure innovation projects can be effectively handed over at appropriate times. This will help to ensure follow-through to implementation.

When a long-term view is taken, it’s easy to see that the winners in innovation might not be the fastest or first to market. They might instead be those that can develop the most collaborative innovation teams.

How collaboratively innovative are your teams?

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The skills of collaborative leadership will enable you to break down silos, build mutual trust with your team and other departments, and inspire greater performance.

About The Author

Gaia Grant and Andrew Grant are the authors of The Innovation Race: How to Change a Culture to Change the Game (Wiley, January 2017). As the directors of Tirian International Consultancy, they help to create innovation cultures for a range of international organizations. The Grants are top-ranking keynote speakers and business facilitators, and Gaia is an HD researcher and guest lecturer at Sydney University Business School.


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