Sometimes we plan to go from point A to point B, but wind up at point C. What happens when point C turns out to be a dead end? In this article innovation architect Doug Collins explores the crossed signals that can occur when organizations attempt to advance their practice of collaborative innovation, but find themselves someplace less promising.

No, You Shut Up

A lilac tree grows outside our bedroom window. Over the years, the tree has reached a height where a family of birds will take nest. For a couple weeks each morning in the late spring, the bird family wakes us at the crack of dawn with their calls and responses. I have become familiar with what this species of bird sounds like as they get ready for their day.

Some mornings I do not hear them. Their tweets serve as a gentle lullaby, serenading me in my slumber. Other mornings I do hear them. Their tweets serve as an unwelcome alarm clock.

I am not by nature a morning person. I arise each morning. I take no pleasure in doing so. One morning, finding myself in a foul mood from hearing the birds at the crack of dawn, I decided to take matters in hand. I opened the bedroom window and scolded the family for their ruckus, ending with a final, “now, you shut up.”

In my zeal to chastise our raucous, free-loading tenants, I had failed to notice one of my neighbors outside, walking her dog. Thinking that I had taken unreasonable offense to her morning routine, she replied, “no, you shut up.”

Half asleep, I found myself at a hazy crossroads. For a brief moment I considered explaining my back-and-forth with birds, which seemed a stretch. Instead, I ended the exchange with her with a rather unsatisfactory, “okay then, have a good day,” shutting the window to preclude the possibility of any further dialogue.

This exchange will come back to haunt me at the block party. I know it.

Crossed Signals

Recently, I have been spending time with a lot of people who work for large organizations and who, some years ago, decided to embrace the practice of collaborative innovation.

How are they doing? What are they doing?

Many have built productive practices. They enjoy good rapport with business sponsors: people who see the economic and non-economic benefits of engaging communities in ideation. They enjoy the satisfaction of having helped people in their organization realize their potential for leadership in forming, managing, and resolving collaborative innovation challenges.

The opportunity to bring an underperforming asset back to life may represent an opportunity to more fully realize your potential for leadership.

A number struggle with their practices. Their struggles as I see them fall into three categories…

  1. Getting themselves and their colleagues lost in the weeds of the practice
  2. Developing grand schemes for conflating the open and enquiry-led forms of the practice
  3. Losing and not regaining sponsorship

I elaborate below on these cases of signals getting crossed.

Lost in the Weeds

The diagnosis: The practice of collaborative innovation, as with any practice, requires its practitioners to walk and chew gum at the same time. That is, the accomplished practitioner has a firm grasp of the processes, interventions, and engagements, which, put together in a cohesive whole, enables sponsors and their communities to succeed in pursuing collaborative innovation together.

What I find with struggling practices is that the lead practitioner—the person chartered with advocating for the benefits of collaborative innovation—has in their zeal exposed too much of the practice mechanics too soon to their sponsor groups.

The problem with this approach? Time and attention. Most people in this environment will entertain learning about new approaches to the extent that they trust that the new approach will help them achieve certain business goals. Every moment that you spend explaining your approach—getting lost in the weeds—is a moment when the sponsor wonders if you will ultimately help them.

The remedy: Wean yourself, practitioner, from your PowerPoint’s for the next six months. Trust that you know what you are doing. Trust that your sponsors trust you enough to engage you in the practice. You have internalized the practice. Now, focus your attention on your sponsor and their community. Engage in dialogue and in white boarding sessions. Close each session with brief notes and emails articulating next steps. If you need to share information, then discipline yourself to sharing that information on one page: one visual that helps your fellow practitioners see the whole.

Developing Grand Schemes

The diagnosis: the forum in which the practice of collaborative innovation takes place occurs in two forms: open and enquiry-led (figure 1). The open form, which features by design loose governance and structure, allows for free-form innovation, outside the context of a specific challenge question. The enquiry-led form features explicit governance and a well-defined structure or process by which challenge teams pose questions to a community and commit to resolving the ideas contributed in response.

Figure 1: context matters—each form of collaborative innovation demands its own practice

Over time, practitioners develop communities around each form. They can get sideways to the practice by fixating on developing schemes for instantiating ideas conceived in the open form in the context of the enquiry-led form. The ideas, taken out of the context of the form in which they were conceived, fail to transfer.

The remedy: treat the open form as fertile ground for doing environmental scans. Have a look at the ideas contributed in this form, which may be produced, for example, in in-person brainstorms or in virtual communities designed to allow ad hoc ideation, outside the context of a challenge question.

What topics are top-of-mind? Do they indicate changes afoot, either internally within the organization or externally with clients? If so, use the insights gained from contributions that people make to the open form as fodder from which to develop a critical question to pursue in the enquiry-led form. Establish the proper sponsorship and structure around the question.

In other words, do the proper, conceptual conversion that moving from the open to the enquiry led form demands (figure 2).

Figure 2: ideas in the open form help to identify and phrase the question for the enquiry-led form

Sponsorship Lost

The diagnosis: the management structure and associated delegation of authority within large organizations resembles a game of musical chairs. People come. People go.

The people who first sponsored the practice of collaborative innovation are long gone. They have moved to new roles. They have left the organization.

As a result, the practice, such as it is, languishes in a remote corner of the organization with the handful of people who retain the corporate memory of the benefits that it once delivered.

The remedy: find new sponsors. Find new sponsors. If you, reader, recognize yourself as this person—the man or woman who inherited the collaborative practice as a result of a reshuffling of people, then you have two choices. You can choose to let the practice go dormant. Or, you can advocate for its benefits with the people in the organization who can make room for it. To reinvigorate the practice you will need to tell a compelling story around the benefits that it has brought the organization. The opportunity to bring an underperforming asset back to life may represent an opportunity to more fully realize your potential for leadership.

Parting Thoughts

It can be easy, with the passage of time, to get your signals crossed on the practice of collaborative innovation.

The business sponsor seeks business benefits. You find yourself, instead, giving them a primer on the practice.

The organization enjoys healthy open and enquiry-led communities. You find yourself wanting to move ideas generated in each back and forth, like checkers.

The organization has lost the sponsorship thread. You hesitate to pick it back up.

Do not let your practice go to the birds. If you do, resist the urge to give them an early morning scolding. Someone may take offense for reasons neither of you grasp.

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: Singing Northern Mockingbird from