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  • Lou Killeffer

ABCs of Innovation: C is for Collaboration

Innovation’s Difficult

It demands a pretty unique blend of skills and attributes. In my experience, the best innovators, indeed, the best business people, are equally strong creative and systemic thinkers. They’re critical thinkers and creative problem solvers. They’re quite comfortable sustaining teams through both strategic thinking and the accompanying, often painful, path of process and execution.

It strikes me the best innovators also understand people, culture, and organizations: and they know how to collaborate to source and sort the best way forward for their brand, their company, and their team.

As collaborators, they’re inherently confident and curious. They seek solutions no matter where they come from. They read a lot. They’re engaged with culture and society; with ideas, people, and trends. They look for and discern patterns. They’re able to organize and synthesize lots of inputs into useful information; and then shape that information into concepts, models, and prototypes. They enjoy sharing what they learn and think in measured, meaningful ways with others.

They also enjoy business and understand both how things work and how things get done. The very best are great facilitators, great leaders of teams, and gifted at working across levels in an organization. Including guiding the C-suite on the fundamental questions that will successfully move a company into their next phase, and figure out new and innovative strategies with that clarity of vision in place.

There’s an ongoing debate about whether breakthrough thinking is more the result of people working individually or together.

The first suggests genius, or simply smart people, work best in isolation and come up with their own brilliant ideas in solitude. The lone artist as hero; revered as such from Michelangelo to Henry Ford to Steve Jobs. I believe in this, rationally and emotionally, and I’ve seen it at work. But a discussion of creativity or the likes of Steve Jobs’ genius aside, at the end of the day, I believe innovation is a social process. That the best ideas are shaped, informed, and improved when shared.

That in fact there’s a communal dynamic at play even when we work and think things through on our own. Because at the moment I put an idea in front of you we’ve started a conversation, and out of that dialogue a better idea will emerge. And that at the moment I put my idea in front of you, I’ve already begun to see it completely differently, regardless of whatever you may say. You may contribute nothing at all, you may yawn, but at the moment of sharing, everything, by definition, just changed, and for better or worse the original idea is evolving.

Good Things Happen When Ideas Brush Up Against Ideas

So why shouldn’t we assume that for the genius pushing against the universe there were moments in the iterative process when his or her individual ideas were strengthened or improved? When John first played the melody to “Norwegian Wood” for Paul and George said Oh, that’s nice, let’s add a sitar here to this waltz you’ve written. Or when Keith first played the opening riff of “Satisfaction” for Mick. Here listen to this; what about that; why don’t we…

If these examples seem fanciful, take the two most powerfully dynamic new companies in the world today. Google originally wanted to be a search engine for corporations, Facebook wanted to be an online directory for colleges. Each of these ideas, nascent business models, was shaped and advanced by meeting and talking with people. Each was changed and refreshed through discussion and dialogue. Every really good idea improves in real discussions with real people.

Finally, Teamwork Isn’t Collaboration

The team-based metaphor for business success is so apt it’s become a cliché. Take a football team; every player has a quite specific job and task at hand, offense or defense; quarterback, running back, lineman. When everyone does their assigned job the group functions according to plan and succeeds, as a result, as a team. Lots of ink and pixels have been spilled describing how well this works in business; when production does its job and marketing its job and sales does its - you have a winning team.

But teamwork is fundamentally different from collaboration.

The football field is famous for its equally spaced parallel lines and defined boundaries. The game’s rules are well known to both teams and enforced in real time by referees on the field. The two goals are prominent and everyone agrees on how to score and how many points you receive for what type of successful attempt.

In business the score is clearly kept by sales and revenues. But innovation lacks the simplicity of a formulaic game plan, a concrete playing field, clearly defined teammate roles and dynamics, or often even clear metrics. (All of which no doubt is to why it’s so challenging to so many corporations.)

Collaborators work completely differently than teams. The best innovation crews are multi-disciplinary. So the players very likely don’t know who they’re working with. They’re not entirely sure of their role or what’s expected of them individually. Everyone’s sorting these issues out together, in real-time, without an umpire or referee.

They’re also sorting what success looks like. And if they’re completely honest with each other, at least at the outset, no one’s quite sure what that looks like. That’s because, in the main, what they’re really all about is trial and error. Their collaboration is driven by investigation, experimentation, and iteration. All seasoned with a fair amount of modesty as ideas come and go, the group settles in, finds its pace and picks up momentum.

None of which, I submit, describes a successful football, or corporate production, marketing,

or sales team…

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