A company that strives to be innovative must be collaborative. But not all collaboration is the same. 

Collaboration is an open-ended concept, one that is core to social business. When considering collaboration as a definition, here’s what I use:

Building toward a defined outcome through the interactions and input of multiple people

What about collaboration in the service of innovation? What are the ways collaboration helps employees, and organizations as a whole, advance their ideas and create impactful innovations?

Let’s start by describing three types of collaboration related to innovation:

  1. Peas in a pod
  2. New partners in crime
  3. Challengers

The facets of each type of collaboration vary, and each has its place in fostering and accelerating innovation.

1. Peas in a Pod

Think about the people you turn to everyday in your work. Likely, a ready set of faces come to mind: your collaboration regulars. That’s no surprise, and it’s a common human characteristic. I do it too. It’s natural.

In a 1996 study, Group Composition and Decision Making: How Member Familiarity and Information Distribution Affect Process and Performance (pdf), researchers from Stanford, Northwestern and Columbia found the following:

In groups that form through natural selection, the most common bases of member attraction are similarity, proximity and prior acquaintance. These processes, while maximizing relationship potential, often minimize the potential for learning. The knowledge and perspectives of group members from the same social networks may be more redundant than diversified. Such groups are likely to experience positive affect, smooth interaction and strong commitment.

But they can also lack the diversity on which they were meant to capitalize, undermining their potential problem-solving effectiveness.

Group familiarity has a salutary effect on the interaction dynamics. There can be less hesitancy to speak up and disagree. In the pursuit of innovation, this is a good thing. For innovation, you need some disagreement and questioning of assumptions. If the innovation was obvious, everybody’d already know it.

This is a good thing, and important for driving innovation.

But the researchers uncovered a negative aspect of these types of collaboration. It’s called the Common Knowledge Effect, first articulated in 1993 by Daniel Gigone and Reid Hastie. Gigone and Hastie found that in groups where the majority of members possess the same knowledge, that knowledge becomes the basis of discussion. Minority-held information by individuals is clouded out of the decision-making process. There is a rush to consider the problem solved, or the right idea established. The Stanford, Northwestern and Columbia researchers found exactly this dynamic playing out for many groups in their study.

This is a problem for too-familiar collaboration groups. Valuable information can be missed, never even considered. This is not about challenging others’ analysis and assumptions, but just plain missing critical bits of information.

2. New Partners in Crime

In this form of collaboration, individuals find others outside their circles of familiarity with whom to collaborate. These collaboration cohorts are new to one another. They are “partners in crime” because they want to overturn the current peace and order of the status quo. They bring different knowledge and perspectives, and pool them together toward a common goal.

In the preceding section, remember that the researchers found that typical (peas-in-a-pod) collaboration centers on factors such as proximity and prior acquaintance. Here are the key points of difference for new-partners-in-crime:

  • Teams form virtually, on-the-fly
  • Idea/problem-to-be-solved is basis of team formation
  • Intrinsically motivated participation
  • Anyone can contribute

These factors are vital for above average innovation inside organizations…