close up of lottery balls in a machine
PHOTO: dylan nolte

Good collaboration produces innovation. So therefore, good collaboration on enterprise social networks produces crowd-sourced ideas and new innovations, right? Job done, let's go home and leave our networks to solve tomorrow's problems. 

Is it really that simple?

True, innovation is a natural product of effective, mature collaboration. But by treating such a game-changing idea as a simple cause-and-effect process — have collaboration, will innovate — we turn it into a kind of lottery. We buy more tickets, getting more employees involved as a crowd initiative because we assume it increases our chances of winning. The odds might improve, but while we will probably get far more ideas, genuine innovation is still a long shot.

Collaboration Does Not Equate Innovation

And all of this is assuming we are actually collaborating well. Digital collaboration tools are an intermediary that actually limit us; a virtual world where everyone can see what we're saying, but we can't see who is listening. It’s harder to encourage free-flowing conversations and sharing of disruptive ideas until we’ve put down some groundwork to make our social networks a trusted place. We won't get anywhere near innovation if we assume that deploying tools equals engagement and mature collaboration.

Let’s assume we've done the groundwork on engagement and adoption and have a thriving online community, where conversation flows. Is this giving us crowd-sourced innovation? Let's cross over into the physical environment and ask how often do we see innovation when we get together in person? Does innovation automatically arrive when we have a good conversation? I'd argue that it doesn't. Yet we naively assume that if we are collaborating well on our social networks, we've done all we need to do to encourage innovation.

Crossing back to the human world, if we are collaborating well in a physical meeting does innovation naturally flow out of this? We may be problem solving, we may be coming up with ideas but are we innovating? Innovation in such environments, unless truly (and rarely) spontaneous, is normally achieved by deliberate facilitation. A considered ideation approach to release creativity and abstract thinking.

To achieve some degree of innovation through ideation on digital social networks, such as through online employee innovation campaigns or more focused team innovation activity, we need to consider two things: firstly, our digital collaboration capability; secondly, and our main point of discussion here, how we bring bona fide creative thinking into digital networks that encourages effective ideas. Ideas with a chance of succeeding, of becoming something innovative.

Related Article: Turn Your Enterprise Social Network Into an Innovation Pipeline

Turn Meetings Inside Out

The biggest obstacle to innovation in meetings is the agenda. Meetings focus on ticking off updates and then move on. Innovation is unlikely to spontaneously appear when we are only looking inwards, justifying our jobs and watching the minutes go by.

Meetings that focus on a problem, an opportunity, trends or needs are more likely to spark good ideas. Rather than navel gaze, look outwards. Rather than look backwards, look to the future.

If we look to how we use our enterprise social networks, we need to apply the same logic. Using them to focus on business as usual activities will only encourage business as usual. Expecting best practice will only give us best practice. Innovation is all about novel practice, it's trying (and possibly failing, but always trying) to do something different.

Establishing groups and events around where we want to go rather than where we are gives us permission to look to change. Examining trends, future scenarios or what we should be doing better starts to get us thinking in the right direction, prompting more considered ideas. Having social networks around tasks and tools will help us to improve our knowledge and skill base around these tasks and tools, but don't expect innovation.

Related Article: Life's Too Short for Dumb Meetings

Stimulate Creative Thinking

If our meeting was actually a focused ideation session, we would treat it in a completely different manner than a normal collaborative meeting. We'd bring in an expert facilitator to run a structured session. They would apply creative thinking techniques to inspire novel outcomes. Asking the right questions, running activities that bring out abstract thinking. So why don't we mimic that on our social networks?

Leaving workforces to it, letting them come up with ideas in their own collaborative circles, is the equivalent of having a meeting with no facilitation. It's a bit of an ask to expect innovation from a team meeting. Likewise, having an ideas box with no help, no focus and no context, is more about collecting solutions rather than honing good ideas around unmet needs.

Idea facilitation on our digital social networks can be easily done. Like face-to-face facilitation, it requires asking the right questions, running exercises to change our plane of thinking and bringing in new topics and conversations.

Good facilitators also engage us. They encourage us into the conversation, they bend the normal rules of work, they make it feel safe for us to contribute. Likewise, we need a means of engaging the workforce in our social networks. Having an environment where leadership encourages us, making us feel that it's OK to be ourselves, to be honest and that the normal rules of work don’t apply — just like a positive ideation session — will encourage engagement and open, honest contribution.

Related Article: Are You Missing Out on Good Ideas in Your Business?

Understand the Purpose for Innovation

Innovation simply won't happen if, as an organization, we don't know what we're ultimately shooting for. The purpose. Even if we do come up with good ideas, there will be no appetite to implement them. That's the difference between ideas and innovation. Ideas require a lot of nurturing to produce an innovative outcome. Such nurturing takes time, effort and quite often, money. If the organization is not yet ready to adapt, all the collaboration in the world won't make a difference.

Understanding the answer to "why do we need to innovate?" or "what's the risk of standing still?" and acknowledging we need to follow through on these answers is critical. Leadership has to want change, processes need to be available to get an idea to market, and crucially, we need to say "yes" rather than "that's not how we do things around here."

Innovation is not a simplistic social outcome from a step-by-step approach to building collaboration maturity. Spontaneous innovation can actually occur anywhere, at any stage — even if our collaboration maturity is low. However, innovation is more likely if we focus how we gather ideas, and that we actually have an appetite to implement them. Good collaboration underpins all of this, but on its own, it's a bit of a lottery. Good luck!