Innovation Strategy and the Collaborative Brain

by Mark E Miller

Innovation Strategy and the Collaborative BrainWe know there are differences in the ways that individuals solve problems, communicate, and ideate. We also know that neural pathways are being created and stimulated while we’re doing these things. Now, from the journal Scientific American, we understand that greater collaboration is more than just smart business – it’s built into our genetic makeup.

The business case has begun to gain momentum, as witnessed by Deloitte’s study, Talent Edge 2020, which found that executives across the globe rated collaboration as a top focal point in the coming years (66% said they anticipated increasing this avenue of talent strategy, second only to increasing talent operations and technology). [This does not show that it is important, just that it’s perceived as important.]

Dr. John Sullivan further supports this idea in a post titled Cross-Functional Collaboration: Discovering its $ Value and the Genius of Google on the HR blog, stating that “learning from the innovative ideas and methods of others and then adapting them to your situation can dramatically increase levels of effective innovation.” He also points to another Deloitte study, which reported that 75% of business executives rank collaboration with vendors and partners as a top priority.

I want to get back to the subject of the brain though, because I think that addressing the question of why collaboration is important to us (and our businesses) is just as critical as the end results of collaborating. If we can combine knowledge of how our brains actually function with each of our unique preferences and behavioral tendencies around sharing, communicating and collaborating, the results can be even greater.

An article in Chief Learning Officer magazine cites the Scientific American study saying that resistance to innovation can be explained at least in part by what’s happening in the brain’s dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (DACC), in which the desire to be accepted, to be included, and to fit in triggers similar brain functions as the basic needs of food, water, and air.

All this talk of DACC and brain function may seem heady, so here’s the bottom line: Collaboration is fundamental to the way human beings process the world. The need to interact meaningfully and be in a forum where ideas are accepted and advanced is at the root of the way our brains function.

So if innovation in a collaborative sense is key to the global business community, and there is an innate need for humans to experience collaboration in an inviting and accepting way, what are the implications for the way good leaders manage, teams work together, and individuals create and communicate ideas?

For one thing, collaborative innovation isn’t going to happen by the same old processes. We can’t be pigeonholed into thinking that there are only a select few truly creative or innovative people in an organization. If anything, this research points to the fact that those employees and leaders who are considered “innovative” from an organizational perspective probably have figured out how to create ideas in a way that invites acceptance. But how many incredible ideas are organizations missing out on because the innovation process is restricted to a small group of “innovators”?

Think about your organization’s innovation practices or models—do they encourage employees to engage in a collaborative sense?

  • Are there outlets through which individuals can express themselves in various ways, like a company Twitter or Facebook page and face-to-face, informal settings like group lunches or recreational sports teams?
  • Are there places—like a community whiteboard—where people can write ideas without risk of judgment?
  • Is there a dedicated brainstorming time each month, to appeal to more structured, process-centric employees?

No matter what the strategies for collaborative innovation are, the key is to realize that there are different ways in which each person’s thinking and behavioral perspectives will manifest themselves. Even more importantly, there is a brain-based need to tap those preferences in order to create an atmosphere where collaborative innovation can thrive.

We’re learning more and more about the brain; and we’re learning more and more about collaboration and organizational dynamics. Putting these insights together can help us ensure that innovations are having the greatest possible impact.

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Mark E MillerMark E. Miller is the Director of Marketing for Emergenetics International – an organizational development consulting company dedicated to expanding the capabilities of the one thing most valuable to every one of our clients – their people. Follow us on Twitter.

No comments

  1. Very interesting article, keep up the good work!

  2. Great article Mark. I love the mention of why certain people are dedicated as the “innovative” folks within a company. If more of those people set time aside to help others find the best way to “sell” their innovative ideas – we could really spark some momentum in ideas being generated and discussed.

    Thanks for the good read!
    Jamie Kelly

  3. Fascinating article! Thank you so much!

  4. Great article. Scott Page’s Difference shows “experts” aren’t as good at solving complex problems and prediction (innovation) as random groups of people. Our research on teams shows that with some simple rules any team can be innovative, doesn’t need to be controlled or facilitated (in fact control and facilitation stalls innovation) and Will create great results those outside the team would never have imagined (emergence). Human groups are complex adaptive systems and if The collective IQ of all the brains in the group is allowed to thrive you get an aggregated IQ that trumps that of any individual no matter how brilliant.

  5. Collaboration is a must… but without the tools to collaborate it’s very tough. Email is the worst tool for collaboration, and sharepoint isn’t great either.

    I’m crying out for low budget, high security, easy to integrate collaboration tools

  6. Excellent article Mark . . .I greatly appreciate your unique ideas on collaboration.

  7. “Collaboration is fundamental to the way human beings process the world. The need to interact meaningfully and be in a forum where ideas are accepted and advanced is at the root of the way our brains function.”

    To me, this statement is key. We all need to have a better understanding of ourselves and of each other so we can appreciate, value and embrace how each of prefer to think and behave.

    Once that happens we really can be grateful for our own contributions. And begin recognizing how that acceptance becomes part of changing the dynamics of our team, our work group, our department, our company…maybe even our world.

    Revisiting collaboration and what it means seems like a great place to start. Rebuilding our understanding through Emergenetics…and grow from there.

  8. Thanks Mark for contributing this piece about collaboration and the science behind it! Fascinating!

    Applying it in an organization/team setting is actually pretty easy — and improves team performance and gets results! A few additional thoughts for implementation:
    – provide a “safe” environment for creativity and all styles of contribution
    – identify employee’s strengths from their Thinking & Behaviors (Emergenetics Profile)
    – build understanding among the team for each individual’s unique contribution
    – leverage the strengths of the team and create new opportunities to fill in the gaps
    – watch for amazing performance and bottom-line results!

  9. Great article, Mark. Very insightful!

  10. Great article, Mark. The white board suggestion is an idea we can easily implement.

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