HBS Managing Innovation Winter 2012 Course

12Feb/120

Collaborate to Innovate: A Powerful but Challenging Proposition

As we’ve explored sources of innovation, I’ve become increasingly convinced of the link between collaboration and successful innovation. This is not a revelation; many companies recognize the potential for collaboration among their employees, with experts outside their industry, and with their customers. But often, these companies fail to reach that potential. What is it about collaboration’s role in the innovation process that is so enticing and yet so difficult to capture?

Innovation is about looking at problems from new angles (InnoCentive), combining expertise in unique ways (Apple, TNZ), and developing knowledge that is not well understood (BBA). On the “front end” of the process, collaboration encourages innovation by bringing people together to explore different perspectives on a problem and discover solutions that go beyond what any individual could have done alone (even Steve Jobs … maybe). Collaboration thus can expand the “design space” and drive new solutions into the innovation funnel.

However, innovative solutions are not necessarily successful innovations. As with most things, the trick is in the execution. Apple’s products wouldn’t be as successful without alignment and skill development around new sales channels, platform expansion, and supply-chain management. In contrast, many of the solutions that Bang & Olufsen’s Idealab generated failed in part because of their incompatibility with design and manufacturing processes finely tuned to traditional strategy and priorities. Collaboration can help here as well.

According to Forrester, engagement is driven by “four Is”: involvement, interaction, intimacy and influence. When collaboration is introduced constructively into the innovation process, employees whose actions may determine an innovation’s success or failure experience all four. Engagement leads to buy-in: understanding of, acceptance of, and commitment to a specific course of action. Buy-in, in turn, enables organizational alignment, without which nothing much gets done. These elements of execution are particularly crucial in bringing breakthrough innovations to market, which often require challenging old ways of thinking and behaving. Collaboration’s role in this process cannot be overlooked.

Collaboration can be a catalyst for a chain reaction of successful innovation:

Recognition of collaboration’s potential has led InnoCentive to explore how it might encourage and facilitate connections among its solvers, BBA to consider turning its customers into collaborators, and BMW to design buildings to encourage interaction. However, collaboration is much more difficult and complex than implied by the offhand manner in which the term is commonly used. Many companies have struggled to incorporate the concept into their innovation processes.Why?

Effective collaboration requires more than simply putting people with different perspectives in a room together and waiting for the next big thing to emerge. True collaboration, whether with colleagues, customers, or outside partners, requires discipline and practice. Structure and constraints are crucial to ensure collaborators work toward a valuable outcome. Big egos and creative geniuses must agree to ground rules that may threaten their usually privileged positions, and must work to understand the perspectives of others in ways they have willfully rejected in the past. Even organizations that acknowledge the need for a certain amount of messiness and failure in the innovation process may balk at the introduction of structured collaboration to this process: it requires a commitment of time and resources whose ROI is difficult to measure, and introduces the risk of misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and animosity. Faced with these challenges, it is no wonder that InnoCentive would think twice about taking responsibility for solver collaboration, or that Bang & Olufsen chose to treat Idealab as an awkward appendage to its process rather than attempting to foster true collaboration between Christopher Sorensen and David Lewis.

When the elements mentioned above are not present, collaboration often does not get off the ground or stalls early. However, there is an additional risk once an organization does commit to collaboration as a source of innovation: compromise. Collaboration is at its most powerful when it enables parties with different perspectives and competing priorities to uncover the win-win solutions at the heart of breakthrough innovation. Tradeoffs are inherent in the innovation process, but must be carefully evaluated and chosen. There is danger in interpreting the imperative to collaborate as a need to compromise, limiting the potential for breakthrough innovations and the support they require to get to market.

It seems clear that collaboration can be a powerful driver of successful innovation, but it is less clear that this is worth the investment and risks. Have you seen companies wrestle with and/or master these challenges? Are there strategies and best practices that effectively weave collaboration deeply into the fabric of the innovation process?

Posted by Matt Noble

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