When you introduce the practice of collaborative innovation to your organization, you make the case to your colleagues that the approach will benefit them more than the status quo. Why might they agree with you? Why might they change their beliefs and behaviors? Have you developed your campaign of persuasion? Innovation architect Doug Collins shares his thinking on how you might influence people to share your beliefs about the benefits of the practice.

Do children who attend elementary school today write persuasive essays? I did. My language teachers embraced the persuasive essay as a way to help me find the mental discipline to organize my jumbled thoughts on various topics into a coherent, grammatically correct argument. As an added instructional bonus for them, writing a persuasive essay required me to make several trips to the library in order to support my newfound views with research. Their partners in crime, the reference librarians, would use these visits to attempt to instill in me a deep and proper appreciation of the Dewey Decimal System.

I cannot recall the topics I chose. I suspect I used the opportunity to rail in compositionally coherent fashion against the slavish burden of too much homework and too short breaks around the holidays. I harbored little compunction against biting the munificent hand that fed me my intellectual bread. Ingrate!

I can recall, however, the curious sensation of doing a better job of convincing myself of the worthiness of my stance than my readers. I morphed into a more strident advocate of my point of view with each line that I committed to paper. Why?

I recently finished reading Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini. Dr. Cialdini, a professor of psychology, shares his views on why we make certain choices. He explains why my younger self experienced a form of self-persuasion through the act of writing an argumentative essay. I find in his writing, too, intriguing approaches for persuading your colleagues to embrace the practice of collaborative innovation, which I share here.

Reciprocation, commitment, social proof, liking, authority and scarcity

Dr. Cialdini organizes his thinking and his findings about influence in six categories: Reciprocation, Consistency, Social Proof, Liking, Authority, and Scarcity. I describe two categories that seem most in tune with the practice of collaborative innovation. I then suggest an experiment that you, the practitioner, can try with your community to see whether pulling the given lever of influence yields positive results. Figure 1 summarizes the six categories.

Figure 1: applying the six levers of influence to your collaborative innovation practice


Description. Dr. Cialdini writes of a psychology study in which two people are invited to review an art exhibit at a museum. The first person knows they are part of the study. The second person does not. In one instance, the first person leaves the gallery and returns with two drinks, one for themselves and one for the second person. In another instance, the first person leaves the gallery and returns with only one drink for themselves. In both instances, the first person then asks the second person if they would be interested in buying tickets to a raffle. The study finds that the second person purchases a significantly greater number of tickets from the first person in the first instance than they do in the second instance, even when taking into account the impression the second person had of the first person.

Dr. Cialdini observes that as part of human society, we each have a powerful sense of reciprocation ingrained upon us. As a result people have used gifting as a powerful influencer. Dr. Cialdini observes further that we may not even value the gift in question in order for us to feel the urge to reciprocate.

Your experiment. Identify five influential people in your community who have yet to participate in collaborative innovation. Give each of them in person a small, yet relevant gift—for example, a copy of Daniel Pink’s Drive. Later in the week, approach each person again. Tell them that you are helping to manage a collaborative innovation campaign. Ask them if they would be willing to contribute as many ideas as they can over the next day.

Likewise, approach five influential people in your community who have yet to participate in collaborative innovation. Give them nothing. Ask them if they would be willing to contribute as many ideas as they can over the next day.

Did you see any difference in behavior between your experimental and control groups? What happens if you give a new experimental group in a second round of tests a gift of no consequence, such as a pencil? Please share your findings in the comments section.


Description. Dr. Cialdini writes of a sociological study to find how we might encourage people to conserve energy at home. In the first instance, researchers called a set of homeowners and shared with them tips for conserving energy during the winters. In the second instance, researchers called another set of homeowners with the same tips. In the second instance, however, the researchers told the homeowners that the sponsoring group would publish the names of the households that saved the most energy during the current heating season in the local newspaper as “conservation heroes.” Interestingly, the researchers followed up with the second group of homeowners midway through the heating season to tell them that, for whatever reason, they would not be able to publish their names in the newspaper.

Dr. Cialdini writes that the researchers behind this study found that the first set of homeowners did not change their conservation practices. Simply conveying seemingly useful information to them had no effect. The researchers found, however, that the second set of homeowners significantly reduced their energy usage during the heating season, even when they were told that their names would not be published as “conservation heroes.” The researchers and Dr. Cialdini found that the second group, in being told that they would be recognized, developed a new perspective of themselves as conservationists. This perspective remained intact—and, in fact, carried forward for the longer term—even when the researchers removed the initial catalyst, the chance to be publicly recognized.

Your experiment. Practitioners at times struggle to get community members to comment and collaborate on ideas that their peers contribute. Identify one set of ten community members who have not commented or otherwise collaborated on ideas that their peers have contributed. Meet with each one. Explain the community benefits of collaboration. Give them tips for doing so. Identify a second set of ten community members who have likewise not commented or collaborated. Give them the same tips. Further, tell them that if they agree to collaborate then you will publish their names in the community or organizational newsletter as “collaboration heroes” in sixty days. Following the study that Dr. Cialdini describes, return to the second group after thirty days and tell them that you cannot publish their names.

Did you see any difference in behavior between your experimental and control groups? Please share your findings in the comments section.

Parting Thoughts

My personality causes me to intellectualize and strategize problems as the first reasonable step towards solving them. Likewise, I instinctively believe that people will share my point of view if only I would do a good enough job of rationally explaining the problem and the solution to them.

Sometimes this approach works. Often it does not.

Dr. Cialdini’s Influence is a useful resource because he reminds us that people do not always decide to do things based on logic. Each of us has a deep-seated need to reciprocate favors, regardless of whether the quid pro quo is on par with one another. Each of us has a deep-seated need to maintain an internally consistent view of who we are as individuals.

We can use these insights for nefarious purposes. We can convince more people to “drink the Kool-Aid,” literally. We can also use these insights to help people experience new practices, including the practice of collaborative innovation, which may prove highly beneficial to their careers and their development as individuals. I am all for the latter.

In closing, Dr. Cialdini explains why, in writing my persuasive essays, I became my own best advocate. Apparently, the simple act of writing something down, no matter how innocuous, becomes our perspective. We behave—and change our beliefs, accordingly—to satisfy a need to remain consistent with what we write. Dr. Cialdini reports an interesting case where Chinese interrogators used this approach to change the beliefs that captured U.S. servicemen held about their country’s aims during the Korean War. The Chinese would encourage their captives to copy seemingly innocuous statements about the war from a notebook they provided. Reading this case, I gain a newfound, disquieting respect for my grammar and composition teachers. Was I their prepubescent Manchurian candidate? Can an essay contest on “the myriad benefits of collaborative innovation” be far behind? Let me know if you proceed. I will likely enter.

By Doug Collins

About the author:

Doug Collins is an Innovation Architect who has specialized in the fuzzy front end of innovation for over 15 years. He has served a variety of roles in helping organizations navigate the fuzzy front end by creating forums, venues, and approaches where the group can convene to explore the critical question. As an author, Doug explores the critical questions relating to innovation in his book Innovation Architecture, Practical Approaches to Theory, Collaboration and Implementation. The book offers a blueprint for collaborative innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management.