Innovation and collaboration – two peas in a pod

You can’t innovate on a whim. The first time I read that (the author eludes me for the moment) it resonated with a point I am at pains to repeat; the ability for innovation to occur is directly proportional to the investment we make in systems that at first have little to do with innovation. Collaboration is one such a system of thought and practice. To put it plainly, organisations that do not collaborate have little real chance to be ‘innovative enterprises’. Every organisation or individual can in fact come up with an innovative solution, product, service etc. But that is very different from being an innovative organisation which is characterised by a capacity to continue to innovate.


Innovation is a special space. A special condition in terms of human psychology. Innovation is a deep place of uncertainty. For individuals who are good and accustomed to a strong command and control style of management, the innovation space is very unsettling and challenging. As Neal Stephenson (an amazing author and futurist) once remarked ‘innovation can’t happen without accepting the risk that it might fail. That factor alone is enough to be a major disincentive for many who have fined tuned their abilities to manipulating stable and known factors. Innovation is simultaneously a state and a process. It is a process which does not offer certainty, but it does offer results and outcomes.

One of the defining features of innovation, as a process of creation rather than a whole system which would then include the strategy of risk management, is the contextual overlay; meaning applying a solution to a particular problem in one context by borrowing from another. What may seem like an ordinary solution in one context, may seem innovative when put in a different context. This, then, means that innovation is a form of ‘combinatorics’ not too different from any creative process. What makes innovation unique is that it has a degree of entrepreneurial process embedded in the process of its creation. This is precisely the reason why collaboration should be the default operating system for any enterprise serious about innovation. As I often repeat, collaboration is a disruptive process designed to lead to the collaborative advantage that an organisation or a group of businesses aim to form. The collaborative setting is then the environment where innovation seems a natural response to dealing with disruption, which inevitably opens opportunities for framing challenges in a new way.

In my experience I find that people most often confuse ‘adaptation’ with ‘innovation’ because they think that a large amount of adaptation to external factors is innovative. However, innovation is about ‘going beyond adaptation’. Innovation is also differentiated by a particular combination of motivators and factors. Here are a few common ones:

1. Seeking solutions that move beyond the predictable (or natural) next step

2. Entrepreneurialism

3. Creativity combined with traditional management. Creativity on its own is risk taking: being creative in constructing a solution is one thing but it is completely useless unless it is then well managed.

4. Being specific to a time and place (elements of context); in hindsight most innovation does not look special.

5. Not universally accepted (when everyone around you thinks what you do is innovative then you have to wonder)

6. Directly linked to a ‘promotion-protection’ relationship. An organisation with deep structures (including strong hierarchies where a pyramid style is in place) is more likely to be in ‘protection’ mode, and thus less likely to access all it needs to be innovative; instead it will be skewed more towards the ‘managed change’ part of the scale.

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