Collaboration and innovation

Great collaboration breeds great new ideas. But how can organisations foster the types of collaboration that lead to more innovation in the workplace? Find out in this blog.

Collaboration and innovation

Whether it's scientists working together to develop successful COVID-19 vaccines, engineers combining their expertise to launch new, more efficient modes of transport or special effects teams pooling their creative skills to deliver breath-taking movie experiences, examples of collaborative innovation are everywhere.

And while collaboration in the workplace is proven to boost success, failure to collaborate can have the opposite effect. Have you heard the one about the business owner who solved all their company's problems by dreaming up one ground-breaking solution after another? No, neither have we. But we've all heard stories about leaders who refused to listen to anyone else's ideas, resulting in their business going downhill (and their stress levels going through the roof).

Thankfully, more and more people in leadership positions are realising that collaboration and success are inextricably linked. According to Fierce, a massive 86% of leaders cite a lack of collaboration as the top reason for failures in their workplace. So, it sounds like most of us agree that teamwork and the sharing of ideas is vital. But what is it about this way of working that leads to positive results? And how can we collaborate in a way that encourages innovation? Let's take a closer look...

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Why collaboration drives innovation

Why collaboration drives innovation

It doesn't matter how good an idea is – it can always be expanded and improved upon. When Paul McCartney wrote the song Getting Better for The Beatles' 1967 LP Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, he probably thought it was the finished article. John Lennon was having none of it, though, and while recording his backing vocal, he spontaneously followed Macca's affirmation that "It's getting better all the time" with the sardonic response "It can't get no worse". By doing so, he took the song to a new level, transforming it from a jaunty jingle into something much more interesting.

Years later, McCartney lauded his bandmate's contribution to Getting Better. In Barry Miles' biography Many Years From Now, the Beatles star said: "I was just sitting there doing 'Getting better all the time' and John just said in his laconic way, 'It couldn’t get no worse,' and I thought, Oh, brilliant! This is exactly why I love writing with John…"

This perfectly illustrates the power of collaboration. Bringing together different personalities, different life experiences and different skill sets enables us to see things from a multitude of perspectives, ultimately leading to a more rounded final product.

The notion that multi-actor collaboration is the driving force behind positive development is one that Jacob Torfing explores in his book Collaborative Innovation in the Public Sector. Indeed, the Roskilde University professor argues that technological or scientific advances wouldn’t be possible without it.

"The development of new technologies and the circulation of new scientific knowledge cannot in themselves spark any innovations," he writes. "Their ability to trigger innovation depends on the purposeful actions of social and political actors who perceive specific technological and scientific innovations as a lever for solving particular problems or for bringing about desired changes, and who interact with other actors inside and outside their organisation in order to design, test and implement new and innovative solutions."

The benefits of collaborative innovation

The benefits of collaborative innovation

Being able to approach a project or problem from a range of different perspectives is just one of the advantages of multi-actor collaboration. Creating a culture of innovation and collaboration to share ideas, concerns and responsibilities can drive innovation in a number of other ways:

Faster progress

If you were throwing a party and wanted to make sure everyone was fed, would it be quicker to make all the sandwiches yourself, or brand the party as a potluck and ask each guest to bring a plate of food? In the same way, sharing the load among different members of a team should accelerate the rate of progress.

Of course, this also depends on processes being put in place to guarantee efficiency. But these could be as simple as setting deadlines for ideas to be submitted or approved, or creating shareable folders to enable multiple team members to collaborate on a project.

Opportunity for reflection

How many times have you gone to sleep with what you thought was a great idea in your head, only to wake up the next day and realise that it was completely wide of the mark? This is why it's important to allow time and space for reflection. Discussing an idea with others over a period of days, weeks or even months will not only enable it to develop naturally without being rushed, it will also give you an opportunity to track its relevance in a rapidly changing market.

But reflection isn't just beneficial to the idea itself; it can also help team members learn from each other's methods and thought processes, offering value to the organisation as a whole.

Promoting inclusivity

The success of any business relies on its workers being engaged, and one of the best ways to ensure job satisfaction is by giving employees a voice. Enabling coworkers to communicate and encouraging employees to voice their ideas and concerns will not only make them feel valued, it will engender a sense of democracy and transparency, reinforcing the notion that "we're all in this together".

In a survey carried out by Fierce, 99.1% of the people polled said that they prefer a workplace where people identify and discuss issues truthfully and effectively. And in another study by Gusto, 54% of employees said that a strong sense of community (including great relationships with their coworkers and a common mission) had kept them at a company longer than was in their best interests.

To encourage innovation and avoid the dangers of groupthink, it’s vital that team dynamics are diverse and inclusive, offering multiple perspectives on a project.

Quality control

No matter how brilliant a team member is at what they do, they're still human, and if they've been focusing on the same thing for hours on end, they can easily lose sight of the bigger picture, allowing mistakes to creep through.

By encouraging collaboration, you can allow team members to draw upon each other's expertise and experience, ensuring consistent high quality.

How to promote collaboration and innovation in the workplace

How to promote collaboration and innovation in the workplace

The notion of work coworkers happily collaborating towards a common goal sounds great in principle, but how exactly do you get to that point? One of the first things you'll need to consider and adapt to is the personalities of the people involved.

A 2020 study published in the International Journal of Research in Management & Business Studies identified three key personality traits that drove innovative behaviour among business students:

  • extraversion

  • conscientiousness

  • openness to experience

However, unless an HR department specifically looks for these traits when recruiting, not everyone in a particular workplace is going to display them.

The challenge, then, is getting people to collaborate and innovate when it's not necessarily in their nature to do so. Different methods will work better for different people, but possible actions include connecting staff with mentors who've overcome similar inhibitions in the past, promoting an open-door policy in which workers can approach their managers at any time, and organising 'brainstorming' sessions where people can bounce off each other's thoughts and ideas.

While spontaneity should be encouraged, Jacob Torfing recommends keeping a few basics in mind: "Ideally, ideas should be big, bold and transformative," he writes, "while, at the same time, feasible, safe and broadly accepted among the key stakeholders."

Of course, advances in technology have transformed – and continue to transform – the way we work, and it's no longer necessary for us to be in the same room, building, town or even country in order to communicate with coworkers, peers and industry associates.

A 2021 survey by Gartner shows nearly 80% of workers are using collaboration tools for work, giving them the ability to share ideas and concepts instantaneously across borders, time zones and even different languages. This not only speeds up processes and improves efficiency, it gives businesses a much more extensive, global reach that can only increase their collaborative power.

"As many organisations shift to a long-term hybrid workforce model, cloud-based, personal and team productivity technologies, along with collaboration tools, will form the core of a series of new work hubs that meet the requirements of various remote and hybrid workers," says Gartner principal research analyst, Christopher Trueman.

And this is just the start – the metaverse promises mixed reality collaboration for remote teams, where in future the best creative people can 'teleport' to meetings across boundaries. Tools like virtual whiteboards and multiple screens will have power to create magical shared spaces with the potential to turbocharge the creative/ideation process. With technology continuing to advance, innovation has never been more achievable, and clearly the potential is huge.

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