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Collaboration, when done right, can be rocket fuel for an organization. Whether it’s through a solution like Clarizen or a white board with sticky notes (ideally both!), teamwork can help us understand what we know and how we know it.

In theory, collective minds produce better ideas. Yet our own experience might tell us otherwise. Chaotic conference rooms where the extroverts bark and introverts lose out have made skeptics of the best of us.

“Sadly, it is not as simple as making people communicate and hoping that innovation ensues,“ Matthew Guest wrote in a report for Deloitte.

Today, the stakes are high in getting collaboration right. Researchers at the MIT Sloan Review describe it as “central to how digitally advanced companies create business value and establish competitive advantage.” The most successful companies, they say, understand that digital transformation “demands a focus on cooperation and collaboration that is unprecedented for most enterprises.”

An Evolution of Ideas and Tools

Collaboration emerged as a management buzzword in the 1990s as a key component of an organization’s “continuous improvement.” MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Toyota’s leadership led the charge, encouraging businesses to build learning communities and peer networks.  

Fast forward to the present era of Zoom video chats and crowdsourcing, where digital tools are woven into group approaches to idea creation. Competition is no longer linear, or even cyclical, but hyper-simultaneous. Teams build, test, launch, and tweak multiple products at once. Welcome to iteration on amphetamines.

Today more than 61 percent of companies are collaborating directly with suppliers, partners, and customers, according to a recent Price Waterhouse Cooper Innovation Benchmark Report.

From Creative Spark to Innovation, Together

Establishing effective collaboration requires a mindset, a set of approaches, and flexibility.  From the get-go, leaders should cede control of idea generation while also keeping teams focused. The best collaborative approaches align with business goals and the talent at hand.

Here are some ideas underscoring successful approaches to collaboration.

Brainstorm – Born in the Mad Men era, brainstorming unleashes ideas by asking the entire team to contribute to the process. Moderators keep discussions structured and domineering voices from domineering. Come up with a problem statement to solve, set a time limit, and encourage all ideas, no matter how wild.

Of course, critiques of the process abound. Jonah Lehrer, for one,argued against the practice in the New Yorker, citing research that found “brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”

In “Your team is brainstorming all wrong,” Harvard Business Review recommends letting people work on their own, then convene once everyone’s ideas are more fully formed. Making room for all contributions, as well as for dissent, encourages participants to think harder and question assumptions.

Innovation Feedback– Collaboration that incorporates debate and criticism often stimulates better ideas. This “debate factor” in collaboration enables Pixar teams, for example,  to transform something “from suck to not-suck,” according to founder Ed Catmull.

The purpose of creative feedback is to move the project forward. Anything that does not fulfill that purpose—no matter who it comes from—has no place in a feedback session,”  Greg Satell wrote for Forbes on the Pixar approach.

Scrum– Hailing from technology development requiring cascading rounds of iterations, Scrum assigns specific team roles to allow developers to make quick, effective decisions. Non-technology companies have adopted the approach to ensure teams shepherd ideas quickly and effectively.

The Industrial Mashup – In the age of the sharing economy and Internet of Things, in which industries recognize the need for digital partners with expertise in software, data analytics, data security and connectivity, companies are increasingly turning to partners, and sometimes even competitors, to get the job done.Forming new alliances called “industrial mash-ups” by the Harvard Business Review, organizations are joining forces to move products more quickly to market.

Boeing, for example, created a network of services to support airline maintenance and repair using the mashup approach. Its Fleet Solutions, integrating internal teams with suppliers and customers, has improved reliability, plane availability, while also reducing costs.

External partnerships can add more complexity to collaborations, but they can also unlock more groundbreaking innovations. When Proctor and Gamble decided its research and development teams were failing to produce the best ideas, it turned outward. In a strategy called Connect + Develop, teams worked with a network of scientists and entrepreneurs around the world. The approach gave birth to the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser, as an example. Today more than 35 percent of new products at P&G come from ideas outside the company.

From Constraints, Freedom

Getting collaboration right often comes down to creating a structure to let it grow. As with a sonnet or haiku, creativity can flourish within a construct – as long as it has some give.  

“Just as games like soccer and football need rules, so too does this kind of work,” says Bruce Nussbaum in Creative Intelligence.  “But you can’t be so rigid that you limit the free flow of ideas: A magic circle requires a balance of structure and looseness. Setting up these parameters allows you to get into the zone together, interact smoothly, and quickly move toward a goal.”

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