Organizations big and small have begun to explore the practice of collaborative innovation as a way to increase engagement and to foment a culture of innovation. Let’s say you work for such an organization. What’s the quid pro quo when you find yourself part of the crowd from which wisdom is sought? In this article innovation architect Doug Collins wrestles with questions that you may want to ask the practice sponsors and yourself.

People who practice collaborative innovation speak in terms of “fomenting a culture of innovation.”

They set their sights higher. They move from the practicalities of soliciting a couple ideas by way of identifying the low-hanging fruit of incremental change to a more visionary interest in pursuing the practice as a way to transform the organization. They begin to see low-hanging fruit as an expression of intellectual and soulful laziness: do not make me reach too far for that which sustains me.

Transformation as the larger, abiding end game tends to come as a way to prepare the organization and themselves to thrive in the relentless, shifting currents of the Digital Age which sculpt all shores.

I spend most my time with sponsors—people who, through designation of authority, introduce the practice to their organization and invite people to engage. What of the hundreds to thousands of people who receive the sponsor’s invitation? What might they consider, relative to making this new culture of innovation their own?

Understand the Quid Pro Quo

As I work with the people who invite the organization to engage in collaborative innovation, I speak in terms of the three C’s: the critical question, the community, and the commitment. The commitment conversation explores the quid pro quo between the challenge team and the community they plan to invite to engage on the critical question.

As a member of the organization in question, you receive an invitation to convene on the critical question. The challenge team hopes, or expects, that you spend a certain amount of time and intellectual capital responding to the question with your ideas. What do you expect in return?

To start, you should expect the challenge team to answer the following two questions.

First question: To what extent does this question speak directly to the organization’s intent?

In other words, is the challenge team posing a serious enquiry that gets to the heart of what the organization needs to do in order to succeed in the coming years (Figure 1)? If so, then the likelihood that the organization pursues any ideas—yours included—increases for the simple reason that, given limited resources, sponsors focus on what matters.

Observe the converse to this thinking: ignore trivial challenge questions.

Figure 1: engage on questions that help the organization get from point A to B

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Second question: To what extent will I be able to pursue my idea—assuming I have an idea and it’s perceived to be a good one?

The character of the innovator separates a potentially good idea from a successfully implemented concept. People who contribute their idea typically do so with the understanding—the intent—that they will have an opportunity to pursue it to its logical conclusion.

Challenge sponsors and their teams will have thought through the sort of engagement model they can support for those people who contribute compelling ideas, recognizing that pursuing ideas often takes people away from their normal work—their “day jobs.” That’s okay: cultural change fails when nobody working in said culture changes their practices. Fomentation becomes fermentation.

The logical extension to this thinking is, of course, do not contribute ideas that you have no interest in pursuing. Contribute ideas that, within the context of the question being posed, reflect your interests and your intent.

Be Rigorous in Your Practice

Some organizations and their challenge teams continue to their detriment to treat the practice of collaborative innovation as the modern-day equivalent of a suggestion box: submit your idea here. Today, “here” commonly means submitting an idea through a form on a web portal.

Do not sell yourself or your idea short. Instead, practice the discipline of contributing fully formed ideas that convey your best thinking.

A well-formed idea consists of three parts: observation, implication, and application.

Your observation is simply a neutral statement about what you see, hear, feel, or otherwise sense about the world at large that causes you to have this idea, relative to the challenge at hand. What do you observe going on in the world around you that leads you to this idea? What inspired you?

Your implication is your perspective on what influence the effects of whatever you observe has — or will have — on the organization, relative to the challenge. What possibilities open for the organization?

Your application is your perspective on what the organization should do to take advantage of your implication — or perhaps minimize its effect if the implication is negative. What actions should the organization take? Or not take?

Figure 2 provides an example.

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Be Thoughtful about the Gifts You Bring to the Table

Our lives follow our imaginations. What do we imagine ourselves doing? Who do we imagine ourselves becoming? What does it mean to realize our potential by pursuing our ideas where they take us?

People who enjoy fuller imaginations lead fuller lives.

With that, as people who sponsor collaborative innovation challenges pose critical questions for you to consider, ask yourself not only, “How might I answer this question in a compelling way with compelling ideas?,” but also “How might I answer this question in a way that respects the gifts that I bring to the table and, in answering this question, allows me to realize the full potential that those gifts can offer the larger organization? (figure 3)”

I have found time and again in organizations very creative, talented, who, because they have perfected various innovations to their own satisfaction and applied it on their own for some time, dismiss the value that their idea can bring to others.

Some say that familiarity breeds contempt. Familiarity with one’s own work and abilities, developed over the years, can likewise breed unproductive forms of self-contempt. Be open to allowing others to provide their view onto the true worth of your ideas: more often than not, you will be pleasantly surprised.

Figure 3: be thoughtful and respectful of where your ideas can take you

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Parting Thoughts on Your End Game

The minutiae of how we work together and how, in working together, we realize our own potential, has become an evergreen topic for the news media as we navigate our way forward in the Digital Age. Do we commute? Do we telecommute? Can the heat from the server farm in the basement heat the crèche that holds the infants on the first floor? Do they catch a chill when we move to the cloud?

What I find in a larger sense from my work with organizations is that the people who figure out how to take full advantage of the practice of collaborative innovation—both for the greater good of the enterprise and as a way to realize their own potential, given the course they have set for themselves—thrive and engage more readily. They succeed.

Many organizations now seek to foment a culture of innovation. Perhaps you work for one. If you do, ask yourself, “How might my embracing this culture help me realize my own potential?” Organizations learn that to succeed in fomenting this culture they must not only navigate the needs of the larger enterprise, but also the needs of the innovators whose creativity they seek.

In the Digital Age the trajectory of your ideas—and not the organization as a governing construct—defines your career and to an extent quality of life.

By Doug Collins

About the author

Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He helps organizations big and small navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation by developing approaches, creating forums, and structuring engagements whereby people can convene to explore the critical questions facing the enterprise. He helps people assign economic value to the process and ideas that result.As an author, Doug explores ways in which people can apply the practice of collaborative innovation in his series Innovation Architecture: A New Blueprint for Engaging People through Collaborative Innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management. Doug serves on the board of advisors for Frost & Sullivan’s Global community of Growth, Innovation and Leadership (GIL).

Today, Doug works at social innovation leader Spigit, where he consults with clients such as BECU, Estee Lauder Companies, Johnson & Johnson, Ryder System and the U.S. Postal Service. Doug helps them to realize their potential for leadership by applying the practice of collaborative innovation.

Photo: People Portraits from