There’s a lot of emphasis on collaboration nowadays. Great teamwork has many benefits, the most important being quick conflict resolution. However, there is one downside to that.
If everyone is working jointly with others or together all the time, how will things ever change for the better?
Of course, there is the old saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but in an environment of absolute collaboration, would anyone even notice if it was? There is a world of good in constructive disruption, so the occasional disagreement may prove to be a lot more effective in driving things forward than simply doing them in the same old way.
Building collective intelligence
The two nouns may sound like partial antonyms, but they are not. Companies have the potential to be smarter than the sum of their employees if only they manage to take what’s good from each of their ideas and aggregate them.
Organizations build collective intelligence by doing several things.
One: ensure diversity in your company. If people are different, their opinions are bound to be divergent as well. Expressing and analyzing divergent ideas leads to optimal outcomes.
Two: have social sensitivity, along with egalitarian norms in a team. This means equal time to share your opinions, so nobody steals the show while others stay quiet (and possibly frustrated).
Three: have a positive company culture. This, in turn, ensures that individuals will naturally help build collective intelligence since it’s a safe space for them to share.
Creating tools that allow and encourage everyone to communicate freely
Excellent ideas often come from the most unexpected places. Innovation itself is often surprising and takes time to be widely adopted. Organizations that manage to get their members to speak up have a lot to gain.
However, it’s important to note that new ideas almost always require complex testing. It takes time and effort to pilot innovative ideas so people should be offered the right incentives to do so.
One of the best practices I’ve ever seen was in a company that held an “idea fair” every year. People could present their ideas on a platform and their colleagues would choose the best ones. The top ideas got trial runs and they would implement the winner project. One year, the idea fair helped the company skyrocket its customer satisfaction scores.
Continuously ask for and vet new ideas
The event that I described earlier was great for big projects, but smaller innovations don’t get enough visibility this way. Small changes can have a big impact as well! That’s why lean managers know to ask for innovative ideas constantly, consider them, keep what’s valuable and take off the table what isn’t.
Here’s an example of a set of “simple” rules for innovation:
- address new markets with more than 500 million dollars in potential revenue;
- leverage the company’s expertise in materials science;
- represent a critical component in a complex system;
- be protected from competition by patents and proprietary process expertise.
Depending on the size and innovative potential of your company, these may be entirely or only partially helpful. The key is to constantly have a framework for innovation and strive to make it happen in your organization.
Take down the barriers to innovation
The first barrier is the misconception I mentioned at the beginning of this article – that collaboration doesn’t allow for any disagreement.
Another big hurdle is the traditional hierarchy of most organizations. Generally, managers are charged with weighing and deciding which ideas have merit, and that’s counterintuitive. If the call is made by people farthest away from the customer, it has a good chance of being the wrong one.
Top leaders should be doing their best to make it easier for the employees who are closest to the market. Clearing the path for ideas originating here and facilitating access to necessary resources to make them happen is leads to revolutionary innovations.
If you ever want to know a company’s pain points, talk to its complaint handling representatives. They will be as accurate as an automated report but have the added advantage of knowing the reasons behind the issues and how they affect customers.
It’s not either/or when it comes to collaboration and innovation. They are both essential. Building a collaborative environment, focusing on collective intelligence, and clearing the path for innovation are the ingredients for success.
Raluca Cristescu is a Faculty of Letters graduate with over ten years of experience in corporate training, focused mainly on soft skills for customer service and direct sales.