Today, many seek ways to transform the manner in which their organization convenes to solve problems and to reach a shared understanding of strategic intent. The practice of collaborative innovation offers a path forward. In this article innovation architect Doug Collins suggests a place for people to start their journey focusing on how to work with the enquiry led, internally focused form.

A Journey of a Thousand Miles

People approach collaborative innovation from many places. Some seek a way for their group to solve problems more effectively. They define effective in many ways. Some want to engage their group more deeply. Their people do not contribute fully because they had little opportunity to create a shared vision for the organization. Still others wish to remain current. If collaborative innovation represents the state of the art, then they choose to embrace the practice. Doing so becomes an innovative act in its own right.

Each path leads its respective pilgrim to ask the following, critical questions: What does it mean to practice collaborative innovation? What opportunities does the practice offer in terms of a vocation? Where might I start my journey?

By practice I mean when a person decides to pursue a path by which they gain mastery over a discipline, whether that discipline be the law, medicine, yoga, or, here, collaborative innovation.

Getting a Lay of the Land

Let’s start by defining the space that the practice inhabits, as shown in figure 1. We will create taxonomy as we go.

Figure 1: forms and focus areas that define collaborative innovation

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Internally focused collaborative innovation engages people within—internal to—the organization (e.g., an organization’s employees). Externally focused collaborative innovation engages people outside the organization (e.g., an organization’s customers), as well.

In the open form of collaborative innovation, the organization creates a space where people share ideas and insights as they occur to them. Participants commit to exploring and resolving ideas in the ways that make sense to them. Typically, the organization imposes no barriers to participation.

In the enquiry-led form of collaborative innovation, people within the organization convene a group of people to form a community that commits to exploring a specific, critical question. The enquiry may come in the form of a challenge facing the organization, for example. Typically, the people who initiate enquiries convene a group that has firsthand experience with and insight on the topic.

Of late, practitioners have explored ways in which they can engage people who participate in collaborative innovation by forming virtual communities and by applying the latest approaches to social media in order to encourage certain behaviors. People gain or lose reputation online, accordingly.

At the same time, applying ways to engage people in person through facilitated dialogue remains acutely germane to the practice in both its open and enquiry-led forms. Exploring ways in which to blend in person and virtual engagement has in turn become a fertile area of discovery for practitioners (figure 2).

Figure 2: expanding upon the focus and forms

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Mapping Your Course

I recommend that people start their practice with the internally focused, enquiry led form of collaborative innovation. I suggest this path for a couple reasons.

First, learning to surface, craft, and engage the community on the critical question—the enquiry—represents the essence of the practice of collaborative innovation. Mastering this skill guides you in later activities such as developing the parameters by which you decide who to convene in an innovation community. Mastering this skill allows you anticipate how the front end of your work—ideation—ties with back end, resolution and application. In the same fashion the individual innovator advances their craft as they learn how to frame and reframe the question until they identify the problem worth solving. You advance your practice insofar as you master this activity.

Second, you can typically practice collaborative innovation sooner and in more immediate ways with the community when you work within the organization. Reaching outside in the early days of your practice burdens you with having to navigate the histories and expectations that the parties bring to the table. Instead, devote your energies to developing the critical question: one that resonates with an internal audience. Likewise, practice convening members virtually and in person to explore the question. Later, you may find that you have opportunities to exploit existing programs for engaging external audiences, such as customer advisory boards.

At the same time, embrace the reality that the commitments you make to an internal audience in your practice of collaborative innovation obligate you to the same degree as the commitments you make to an external audience. In other words, your early, internally focused practice does not represent a dry run ahead of pursuing externally focused innovation. Use this time to explore the extent to which the practice serves as a catalyst for authentic transformation. Are you approaching collaborative innovation in such a way as the community members increasingly own the process and the outcomes?

As you gain mastery over the internally facing, enquiry led variant of collaborative innovation, you may next want to explore the possibilities of internally focused, open innovation. This area of the practice represents a step-level increase in difficulty over the enquiry led form, however. I have, for example, seen many cases where people model the open form by existing departmental or hierarchical lines, precluding opportunities for meaningful, crowd-sourced innovation from the start—or, where the activity devolves into the online equivalent of the suggestion box.

Whereas the enquiry-led form of collaborative innovation requires you to master skills in question formation and engagement, the open form of collaborative innovation requires you to master in addition higher forms of community structuring, moderation, and concept resolution. I will explore this form in a coming article.

By Doug Collins

About the Author:

Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He has served in a variety of roles in helping organizations navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation by creating forums, venues, and approaches where the group can convene to explore the critical question. He today works at Spigit, Inc., where he consults with Fortune 1000 clients on realizing their vision for achieving leadership in innovation by applying social media and ideation markets in blended virtual and in-person communities.

Previously, Doug formed and led a variety of front end initiatives, including executive advisory programs for industry influencers, early adopter programs for lead users, corporate strategic planning, and structured explorations of new market and product opportunities. Before joining Spigit, Doug worked at Harris Corporation and at Structural Dynamics Research Corporation which is now part of Siemens Corporation.