While working with a recent client on a leadership and culture development project, I facilitated a series of workshops in each department where each group was made up of members of that department only. To ensure that the meetings had a practical and commercial focus, we linked the learning to real-life business challenges. In doing that we built plans for developing new markets, sales, customer service, etc.
As part of that process, we did some 'root cause analysis' of problem areas. I listened to people blaming colleagues from other departments, who were not in the room. So for phase two we changed the groups. We ran the workshops, this time with mixed groups from different departments. While there was some tension at first in those meetings, very quickly we moved to problem resolution. The atmosphere changed from one of conflict and negativity to one of collaboration and positivity.
The need for collaboration is more prevalent than ever. The complexity of problems in the world and indeed in organisations demands it. Also, increased specialisation means that experts now have a depth of knowledge in increasingly specific and focused areas. The Dogpatch Lab Startup Hub in the IFSC, as an example, has many startups bouncing off one another daily.
We need to find ways and means to connect that specialised knowledge. Picture a spider's web with each strand going out from the centre as a specialist discipline. Picture too how much stronger and robust the web is - because of the strands that link across those verticals. This is relevant for all of us, whether the collaboration is internal within our own organisation or if it's external.
We love the notion of the lone genius, but very often 'breakthroughs' are the result of collaboration. People often describe a 'eureka' moment where the idea just came to them. In actual fact, you will most likely find that they have been incubating the problem area for a while and probably discussed it with others.
Diane Tangney is the founder of Insight Out (insightout.ie), a consultancy that works with expert groups in companies, government agencies and open innovation networks on creating the conditions for successful creative collaboration. Her PhD is in the area of creative collaboration, looking at how experts from different disciplines come up with ideas. She works with large and small organisations as well as a number of high potential innovation networks, such as the Ocean Power Innovation Network (OPIN).
OPIN is a collaborative network spanning Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland. It was formed to progress innovation in wave and tidal energy technology. Most of the firms in the sector are small, pre-commercial (no revenues yet) and duplication of efforts is widespread.
OPIN was established by three state bodies - the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), Invest Northern Ireland and Scottish Enterprise. OPIN's mission is to advance innovation by learning from experts in other industries, to push the boundaries of what's possible in ocean energy - and progress innovative ocean projects in a coordinated way. In doing that, it focuses on collaborative initiatives, knowledge-sharing, applied learning and creative thinking in ocean energy technology development. There are increasingly more open innovation networks, like OPIN emerging, as companies recognise the need to collaborate externally, as well as internally.
Real collaboration within organisations goes far beyond mere 'cross-party talks' and can be impeded by obstacles such as different profit centres, internal politics, defensiveness and competing agendas. These obstacles are less likely when collaborating with outsiders. Instead, the challenges there might be more about lack of trust, potentially differing worldviews and a time-intensive learning curve. I have experienced real obstacles to collaboration in firms of all sizes. I have also seen it with entrepreneurs who believe they can do most things themselves.
To start with, collaboration requires an opening of the mind to the possibility of working differently and progressing your innovation in potentially different ways. "The real shift that is required is about mindset and evolving from a proprietary position to a collaborative one. The question is no longer whether you are open or not to the idea of collaboration, because survival demands that. The question now is, where in your organisation is collaboration appropriate for you?" says Diane.
To make collaboration work for you:
1 Have the right people in the room. Select the best people who have both the talent and openness to others. Exclude those that have no desire to collaborate.
2 Create the right conditions. Consider carefully the appropriate physical space and place for a specific group of experts to engage and build trust.
3 Engage a skilled facilitator to ensure the process is structured and focused on a result. The facilitator should ensure a good balance between the level of order and free-flowing of ideas.
4 Agree ground rules like active listening, to understand and not to find fault.
5 Agree actions that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely. (SMART)
SUMMARY: Small organisations have typically been more open to collaboration than larger ones. But the message for all of us is that there are many benefits to collaborating and shared innovation.