Collaborate to Innovate

Much innovation springs from collaboration in the current age. No longer do the talents required to develop new products services and businesses reside within a single individual, discipline or department. In some circumstances, enterprises need to collaborate with people they don’t even “own” or control as innovation turns to the “crowd” for ideas, insights and imagination, such as in Unilever, Oticon and Virgin. This requires a completely different approach to the management and motivation of such people.

Leaders must respond with strategies and tactics that make horizontal co-operation as important as hierarchical management.

In this brief extract from my new book Leading Innovation, Creativity and Enterprise, I explore a biological and systemic outlook on Organisational Structure, rather than the industrial models that have characterised much of the work in this territory over the last 150 years.

How do bees build the human equivalent of cities without Microsoft Project, a decision tree or a Gantt chart? How do they co-ordinate complex affairs without SOP’s, lean thinking, Six Sigma etc? Bee colonies have flat structures. There is one boss, who is a woman. The HR (Hive Resources) Department has identified a few specialised roles: workers; drones. No single bee wants to become Senior Vice President of Pollination (SVPP) or CEO (Chief Ecology Officer), Director of HR (Hive Resources). Bees do not have extensive Compliance divisions requiring every flower to be checked for PC (Pollen Coefficient) …

Within this slightly whimsical comparison are some very serious points for leaders trying to make the most of their talent through collaboration:

  1. Keep structures as simple as possible, especially if the work is complex. Organisation structure can be an enabler or an obstacle. Make sure it is an enabler
  2. Actively encourage networking outside of silos and even outside the enterprise if you want your people and enterprise to learn faster than competitors
  3. Use external agents to stimulate your “corporate synapses” and “corporate corpuscles” by adding difference to your own core competences
  4. Don’t let structures ossify – innovation comes out of flux and change. Tim Smit, CEO of The Eden Project makes this point well in his interview Structuring the Garden of Eden
  5. Develop reward and recognition strategies that encourage horizontal collaboration in ways that at least as powerful as hierarchical control. What gets measured gets done

Leading Innovation, Creativity and Enterprise explores a number of case studies that give clues to collaborative strategy for innovation from FujiFilm to W.L. Gore and Virgin.

Collaborate to Innovate - Innovation Excellence


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Peter Cook leads Human Dynamics and The Academy of Rock, providing Keynotes, Organisational Development and Coaching. He is the author of seven books on business leadership. His three passions are science, business and music, having led innovation teams for 18 years to develop life-saving drugs  including the first treatments for AIDS and the development of Human Insulin. Peter is Music and Business editor at Innovation Excellence. You can follow him on twitter @Academyofrock.

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