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Collaboration and Innovation: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate” *


Show me a recent company mission statement or a set of corporate values and I'm willing to bet that it'll contain the words collaboration and innovation. It'll probably also contain the word agile and maybe lean as well but let's not get sidetracked in the first paragraph.

Whilst I don’t dispute that innovation and collaboration are ‘good things’, when they appear in high-level mission statements and value propositions, they are usually little more than words plucked off a jargon bingo sheet, fairly meaningless and probably not understood by the people who wrote them any more than the executives and managers tasked to make them happen.

The biggest misplaced assumption about innovation and collaboration is that these things can be made to happen on demand. Secondly, there is the rather suspect assumption that for businesses to succeed everybody in the organisation must be an innovator and a collaborator. Thirdly and finally I take issue with the assumptions that innovation needs to be centralised and that collaboration and teamwork are synonymous.

My main issue with these assumptions is that both collaboration and innovation are organic. They cannot be turned on and off like a tap and management cannot force people to do either (at least not successfully).

I’ve spent quite large portions of my working life as a remote worker so I’ve always been interested in the way ‘home-based working’ falls in and out of management favour. As a remote worker, generally you become a natural collaborator, otherwise, you tend to go slightly deranged. You also become something of an innovator, because there are times when you are the only person who can come up with a solution to a problem you face. Yahoo, IBM and HPE all made headline news when they announced an end to home working because they needed everyone in the office to ensure maximum collaboration. As if being in an office in San Francisco is going to make you any better at collaborating with your colleagues in Bangalore than if you were at home (actually it’s more likely to be the reverse, but let’s not go there).

I recently came across a question asking how to enhance Global Collaboration in an organisation. The question pertained specifically to a situation where the business comprised a significant itinerant workforce. But regardless of the specifics, I was intrigued by what was meant by “Global Collaboration”. Was there an expectation that management could force people across the world to collaborate, regardless of their role, department, or whatever other artificial organisational constructs you’d care to add? Even if that were the case, why on earth would you want it? It sounds like a recipe for disaster in terms of organisational productivity. You could spend all day in meetings collaborating with people you’d never heard of before about subjects you know nothing about!

Collaboration needs a driver and a context. Groups of people need to collaborate from time to time - some more than others. And a failure to collaborate is exactly what causes organisational meltdowns on occasion.  Organisational failure often occurs at the interfaces within those artificial organisational constructs I mentioned earlier, and more often than not is brought about by the very creation of those constructs such as setting conflicting objectives for sales and marketing teams and engineering teams. Or trying to create an agile organisation one project at a time. When individuals or groups of people understand that they have mutual goals like deliver a product to the customer in the fastest time, it’s amazing how quickly they learn to collaborate.

In the same way, it’s amazing how people will collaborate in order to innovate a solution to solve a problem. But management doesn’t generally see this as good enough because they are constantly being told (by people who don’t have a clue what they are talking about) that they need to innovate faster to stay ahead. So soft drinks manufacturers, for example, constantly come up with improvements to their age-old, much-loved recipes that no-one likes and no-one buys. They’ve innovated their way out millions of dollars of marketing, R&D and customer loyalty. Of course, they could have gone to their frontline workforce and asked them if they could come up with better solutions to create their existing products (yup - that’s also innovation!), but that’s not enough to satisfy greedy investors and analysts.

The relatively new fad of creating Centres of Innovation, where good ideas go through various filters before they get approved or rejected and then end up in the hands of people who implement something completely unrecognisable from the initial proposal, sends out an extraordinary message to employees. It says - we don’t trust you to be able to take an idea from nothing to implementation; we need someone better qualified to do that. And in so doing it stifles innovation from the very people who know best what needs to be done.

If you take a dozen people and put them on a desert island with no interaction with the outside world, they’ll innovate a way to kill each other, after the strongest have collaborated together to find out which of the others to kill first.

* Quote from the 1967 film, Cool Hand Luke by The Captain (played by Strother Martin)











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