There’s a lot of talk these days about collective intelligence and co-creation, but how many of us really do this well?
As defined by Trudy and Peter Johnson-Lenz in ‘Groupware: Orchestrating the Emergence of Collective Intelligence’ (1980), “Collective Intelligence can be additive (each part together forms the whole) or it can be synergetic, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Fast forward to 2010, and two studies at MIT revealed some interesting results. The social sensitivity of the group was a driving factor in how well the group performed. In other words, the ability of the group to perceive each others’ emotions and take turns and apply their skills to a given challenge resulted in 30-40% better results.
Examples of the power of collective intelligence and co-creation abound. Linux, Wikipedia and Jigsaw are all based on the concept that together we can create better insight, solutions, products and services than we can alone. In crowdsourcing, collective intelligence merges with outsourcing, and a task or problem is outsourced to an undefined public. But in many of these examples and in our own organisations, most of us are practicing additive co-creation, not synergetic. Or worse … no co-creation at all.
Broadly speaking, there are four approaches to innovation:
- • Lone Hero: An originator comes up with and develops an innovation, relatively free from external collaboration. This is the ‘build it and they’ll come’ approach.
- • Entrepreneur: An originator comes up with an idea, goes out to the world to test it, goes back, reflects, adapts and then does that process again and again. This is the process adopted by many successful entrepreneurs and innovators.
- • Open Hero: An originator comes up with an idea and puts it forward to the world to hone, tweak and ultimately improve. A wiki and of course Wikipedia is a great example of how this works in practice.
- • 1+1=3: A team of people work together to come up with an idea and then engage with a broader set of stakeholders (e.g. customers, suppliers, partners etc.) to develop and shape the idea. The difference is that the whole team’s thinking gets challenged and developed when they collaborate together – no one person is the innovator, but everyone knows that it has been created through the synergies of their and their stakeholders collective experience, know how and insights.
True innovators go out and look, ask and listen … they do not sit in a dark room indulge their own intellect. They are obsessed with the opportunity rather than the original idea and know that turning an idea into an opportunity takes the courage and humility of seeking thoughts, feedback and ideas from others. But while what I’ve called the Entrepreneur and Open Hero approaches can be very powerful, 1+1=3 has a higher degree of openness and ownership. I’ve observed all of the above approaches adopted successfully in different organisations, but when 1+1=3 happens, you know you are part of something special.
I vividly remember a product innovation team that took a very entrepreneurial approach to how they found pain points and developed products that would answer them, but it was their ability to engage key stakeholders and a diverse team in the thinking and creative process that made them unique. No one person was the originator; in fact at the end of it no one remembered or cared who the original idea had come from. Another example I can think of is a client of ours, who has created an ecosystem of internal and external collaborators in one of the most complex and expert-driven industries around: pharmaceutical R&D. 1+1=3 is not just about listening to others’ ideas and input, it is about bridging and connecting the know how and expertise of a team and together getting to new insights and solutions that is greater than the sum of the individual inouts – and in doing so creating ownership of the outcome.
In ‘Let Your Ideas Go’, Nilofer Merchant (HBR 26 June 2012), talked about how openness is the ethos in the era we live in today: the Social Era. “Openness is powerful, even catalytic. On a personal level, it not only allows us to share, but to co-create with speed. On an organizational level, it allows for more than collaboration, it enables communities.” I couldn’t agree more. The illusion of control is a thing of the past and the sooner we embrace and harness openness as a core element of how people communicate, collaborate and innovate, the better.
But why do I talk about ownership? Because to make things happen, to create change and move forward, we cannot go it alone. Our ability to create ownership (and by that I mean personal commitment and excitement) of an innovation in others is one of the most important elements of success. Much technological innovation is never adopted because people don’t see the need or have the desire to change. Companies fail to execute their strategies because people don’t have personal ownership to where the company is going. A serious flaw in the product or strategy is rarely the root cause. It usually boils down to lack of shared and individual ownership.
If we genuinely believe, as I do, that synergistic co-creation is powerful, we need to create processes and approaches that not only allow, but encourage us to explore, think and create together. At Unleash, we have a big, bright orange collaboration table we use for company meetings, workshops and ad hoc discussions. We don’t always get it right, but when 1+1=3 to happens internally and in client organisations, I’ve found a few common threads:
Purpose: No one ever got out of bed to increase shareholder value. Shared purpose is about creating a higher purpose or mission that taps into our desire to do great things.
Challenge: Smart and creative people like to work on tasks where they get to push their boundaries and challenge themselves.
Diversity: At Unleash, we’ve purposely recruited a very diverse team. We have scientists, entrepreneurs, consultants, psychologists and marketing gurus. But diversity is not just about a few people from different backgrounds and 50/50 men and women … it’s about diversity of thought.
Team: Just because we call a group of people a team, doesn’t necessarily mean they are. Team is all about working together as one. It’s about developing the ‘social sensitivity’ mentioned and most importantly, harnessing synergies.
I know what you might be thinking. It’s all too easy to say these things, but hard to do in practice. I completely agree. Personally, I often get so carried away with the outcome or new insight that I neglect to engage all the people in the team. Sometimes I put time and desire to get to an outcome ahead of collective exploration. How many of us were taught real teamwork and synergistic co-creation at school? Only in the past decade have schools started introducing more team-based learning, but what happens most of the time is that 1-2 students do all the work and others ride the wave of the overachievers. That’s not co-creation; it’s not even teamwork most of the time.
As we inevitably stumble forward in a quest to be successful in our off and online enterprises, I’d like to pose a challenge and a call to action to myself and others: Next time we have a problem that needs solving or a ‘genius’ idea for a new product or service, let’s take a step backward, open it up and let it fly in the crowd, be shaped by the winds, take form from the unknown and come back to us nothing like we’d originally imagined, but much, much better.
Therese S. Kinal is Managing Director and Co-Founder of Unleash. One of the biggest issues organisations struggle with today is the successful execution of strategy. Unleash takes client teams on a journey to solve real, pressing and complex business issues for themselves. The results? Increase in capacity, innovation and growth, and leaders who deliver results and love making it happen. www.unleashteam.com