Are You Forcing Collaboration or Fostering Innovation?

BY Kathy Crosett
Featured image for “Are You Forcing Collaboration or Fostering Innovation?”

If you want to lead an organization that’s setting trends – Elon Musk-​style – you need team members to think creatively and innovatively. The trouble with most old-​school companies is that knowledge is shared on a need-​to-​know basis only. That strategy might be necessary if you’re working on a defense contract that requires team members to undergo security clearances and wear badges denoting their top-​secret status. For the rest of us, sharing knowledge should be part of the culture established by managers.

Ted Bauer believes there are right and wrong ways to encourage idea sharing. All too often, collaboration is management’s style of idea-​sharing. For example, maybe you’ve decided to build a team, set up a meeting for Tuesday afternoon and assigned it the task of coming up with new ideas. On Wednesday, you may be looking at a list of proposals that don’t seem very unique or groundbreaking. Why? Because, “collaboration is largely something forced on us by our managers,” says Bauer.

By hand picking the members of the team, you’ve limited inspiration to a select group of people. In companies where innovation thrives, information and idea sharing often happens on-​the-​fly. An engineer who’s working on a product may drop by the accountant’s cubicle for a piece of the cake she’s brought in and start discussing an issue. The accountant’s perspective on the problem, perhaps learned from personal experience, could be the insight the engineer needs to remove a roadblock.

To foster this kind of open exchange, think about posting documents in a shared space and inviting comments from everyone. One innovative company uses whiteboards in elevators and asks anyone who’s interested to offer ideas or solutions for a specific problem. You could also develop a system that encourages all employees to participate in business development and product development ideas. Put a process in place for reviewing proposals and awarding funds to launch new products. To ensure that everyone is vested in the innovation culture, rotate the team members who make the awards and include people from multiple departments.

Your employees have plenty of innovative ideas as they go through their work days. It’s up to you to establish a culture that welcomes idea sharing and development.