Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Collaborative Innovation

We innovators are a mixed up lot. We hold two very different beliefs strongly:
1. We believe that the person in their garage can create something truly unique.
2. We believe that ideas are sharpened as we collaborate.

But as I have watched the debate around the Stimulus package for the US economy, I have seen these two beliefs hit head on. Each politician has cooked up what they think are the key elements. They throw them into the pot and try to make them better. But as happens many times, the ideas that get thrown in don't always come out better. Sometimes they just get convoluted and watered down.

So how do we bridge these two truths - because there is no doubt that they are both valid.

I think that it has mostly to do with how you go about your innovation. Here's what I mean. If you let an idea develop too long on it's own, collaboration is unlikely. Conversely, if you don't seed a concept into a group, they may not do anything productive.

Timing is critical. You have to give each member enough time to understand the challenge and process, but bring them together before the ideas are no longer pliable. What that suggests to me is that there is a window where ideas are developed enough to be good raw material but not so developed that people can't collaborate.

So what might it look like to define this window. You might ask some of the following questions:
1. What do people need to know/process in order to be valuable collaborators?
2. Do those I am engaging have long-standing opinions and ideas about the topic?
3. Is the idea too far along or the deadline too close to have authentic collaboration?
4. Is collaboration a benefit to this innovation or is the speed of a single innovator more valuable?

As you ask these things, look for that window between individual innovation and collaborative innovation. See what can happen when you are proactive about these two truths.


Anonymous said...

This is a really useful idea-- the window of opportunity between an initial insight and development that is so far advanced that collaboration seems trivial.

In my experience, another factor that plays into this window is the level of passivity on the part of those we seek to collaborate with.

For example, the Tibetan camp that we work with has exceptionally passive, risk averse leadership, and/or leadership whose hands are tied with excessive bureacracy. The M.O. with foreigners seems to be, "thank you for your concern. Please leave all your money on the table outside and we will do with it s we see fit. Have a nice day." We have tried the whole spectrum of innovation from "Please help us understand the situation and needs of your community" to "Here is a realistically developed package that we are ready to implement." All along the spectrum, passivity combined with excessive bureacracy and suspicion of foreigners has frustrated forward movement.

A few ideas have gotten through, but are driven mainly by us --the community members are hesitant to get behind us for fear of being branded as "sponsor seekers" by the community. Passivity, hostility to the Gospel, internal competition, bureacracy and an excessive welfare system that intitutionalizes all that makes it a challenging place to innovate in mission. I'd really appreciate some help on this one, so follwing this thread is going to be useful.

In a nutshell, the question is really, "How does one handle passivity and excessive bureacracy when facilitating innovation in UPG communities-- specifically with reference to its effect of narrowing this "window of innovation" to the point where it hardly exists?"

Jon and Mindy Hirst said...

Dear Friend,

Thank you for sharing your question. You example has another layer of complexity because of the cross-cultural component. It sounds like the passivity you are feeling has a lot of cultural implications and reasons that wouldn't necessarily be the same in a US organizational setting.

Passivity is a real problem with innovation in a US context as well. It takes the form of the status quo and resists any change in order to maintain power structures and a certain comfort level.

In your situation, I would throw out these thoughts:
1. How is money playing into their willingness or unwillingness to innovate? Is the innovation something that they can do without money coming from outside?
2. What is the power structure in this society? Where do ideas usually come from? What happens traditionally when an idea comes from a different source?
3. What are the commonalities in the ideas they have adopted? Are there any trends you can process?
4. Which expat worker has had the most success building innovation together with those you serve? Interview them on how they have entered and engaged the culture to create innovation?

Finally, one of the realities is that innovation is a western concept that has become important as modernity created a need for forward motion. In western cultures innovation is a felt need that drives many things about our world. However, innovation is not a felt need in much of the world's cultures. That is not bad. They don't have the same linear world view that requires forward motion at all times to be considered effective.

Consider how you can be innovative from your context but then apply that appropriately to the context of the culture you are in.