Innovation’s Missing Vitamin C

by Evan Shellshear

Who is your greatest inspiration and why? We all have our list of prodigious achievers who motivate us to go for more but the question is do they really deserve your admiration? The lone man myth, the captain at the helm driving a company’s innovation, is now starting to crumble. From Steve Jobs to Elon Musk, we seem to want to simplify the innovation process down to a single person. In the process we forget innovation’s missing vitamin C – collaboration.

When we stand in front of architectural wonder, the Pyramids, the Eiffel tower, Big Ben, then the first thing people often associate with it is the reigning deity who ordered the edifice to be built. We forget that without the help of thousands of people, coordinating their actions like musicians playing a grandiose baroque overture, the work would never have been completed.

The organization of masses of people to achieve a goal has continued onto this day. Boiled down to its basics, multinational corporations employing hundreds of thousands of people across the globe are nothing more than a massive collaborative activity.

To drive profits and success, it is natural for a firm to use best practices to engage their employees to achieve the most. So why is it that between companies the same thing fails? Just like managing employees, why isn’t it just as simple to have a group of firms collaborate just like their own staff do? In the end, it’s the same people.

The argument for collaborating is clear. In our twenty first century, hyper-charged economies, competition is greater than ever. Markets are opening up, the internet connects us all and the technology curve is getting steeper every day. An executive at Volvo once said to me that the competition is so insane nowadays, that you have to be the best in everything. Just having the best safety record is no longer enough. And I asked him how can you do this? The answer; collaboration.

When people think of collaboration, they often think of a group of people sitting in a room brainstorming together. Brainstorming, in its most basic form, has been heavily criticized but given a proper structure it can be a powerful tool.

There are many techniques, or best practices, to make brainstorming a success. The well-known shifting technique, using a facilitator or having a creative group of people can double or triple the outcomes of brainstorming activities. Given that there exist good structures for high quality brainstorming, then it must be possible to do something about inter-firm collaboration, right?

Right. In the last five years, there has been a slow revolution brewing. New methods and standards for collaboration are appearing on companies’ radars. The recently approved British Standard 11000 puts a framework around collaboration to give people the language and structure to make it succeed. And the outcomes?

◦          20 per cent reduction in operating costs;

◦          improved supply chain risk management;

◦          15 per cent savings through supply chain aggregation;

◦          improved delivery performance; and

◦          enhanced investment.

Like-minded companies focused on collaboration immediately see the benefit. There are organizations now able to offer a structured process based on the standard and large multinationals such as Raytheon are being certified. Just like an MBA, being certified is a great signaling tool. It says loud and clear, “I want to collaborate to improve my game”.

Other well established methodologies for collaboration also exist and they typically follow a similar process to the British Standard. Product managers, brainstorming facilitators and many more are now using structured processes to guide groups of people and corporations to better outcomes.

Like anything, not everyone is prepared to do it nor wants to do it, so it’s not appropriate to force it on everyone. Many companies still believe in the lone man myth; that they can make it on their own and, to be honest, many still can. But as the executive at Volvo said, being the best at everything is easiest when you collaborate with the best. Putting a structured process around it simply guarantees that the best collaboration teams just got better.

image credit: Shutterstock

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Evan Shellshear is a technology and software expert working as the Point Cloud Manager at the Fraunhofer-Chalmers Centre in Sweden. His work focuses on turning cutting-edge research into successful industrial solutions across numerous industries. Connect with him @eshellshear

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