Ascend Your Innovation Plateau: Think Leadership

Practice makes perfect. People master collaborative innovation as they convene people on the critical conversations and as they navigate the day in a life of innovation challenges. What’s next? What possibilities do we see for further progress? What possibilities do we see for leadership? In this article, innovation architect Doug Collins shares insights for the advanced practitioner: people who have become familiar with the blueprint for collaborative innovation and seek to hone their craft further.

Three kinds of books appear in our lives: those we pick up and quickly consign to garage sale fodder; those we enjoy once and forget; and, those that capture us. We turn to the latter, time and again, for meaning and counsel.

Peter Kostenbaum’s Leadership falls in the third category for me. He does the hard, thorough work of tying the practice of leadership with a philosophy of leadership based on vision, courage, reality, and ethics. I learn something new and useful each time I work through his model for leadership. His work challenges me and helps me see whatever plateau I happen to be walking at the time.

In this article I channel my inner Kostenbaum to explore aspects of collaborative innovation that fellow practitioners may want to probe more deeply. How might we take our practice to the next level? How might we fully embrace that collaborative innovation is an authentic expression of leadership?

Elicit the Wisdom of the Crowds

The scenario: the phrase, “the wisdom of the crowds,” enjoys currency through the writing of New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki. The practice of collaborative innovation, through crowdsourcing, helps groups to tap this wisdom to arrive at valid, optimal answers in unpredictable environments.

The practice challenge: Surowiecki and the people who first researched the subject caution that wisdom veers into group think when the individuals who comprise the crowd do not act independently of one another. Group think starts when the members of the crowd influence one another before they have each had a chance to contribute their insights and ideas.

As a practitioner, you help the group seek wisdom by enabling each member of the community to contribute their ideas and insights before they have the opportunity to weigh in on the ideas that their peers contribute (figure 1).

Figure 1: the leader respects the community member by giving them time and space to contribute their ideas, independently of others

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The leadership challenge: ethics. Ethics comprise one facet of Koestenbaum’s leadership model. The ethical leader places themselves in service to others and values their contributions. You advance your leadership—and your practice—when you behave with integrity towards each member of your group or community. You do so by giving them space to contribute their insights and ideas, unburdened by the early influence from others.

Value Diversity to Battle the Availability Bias

The scenario: we equate the word diversity with general goodness. The practitioner as a matter of course seeks diversity of perspective in convening groups or communities of people on the critical question.

The practice challenge: people such as the behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman find that our minds by nature abide by the rule of WYSIATI—what you see is all there is. In other words, our mind relies on what it observes to satisfy the need to paint a coherent picture of the world around us, regardless of whether we lack critical pieces of information about that world.

Thus, the practice leader embraces diversity not only out of a sense of its inherent goodness, but also out of an appreciation of how inherently bad each of us, individually, is in forming insights based on the limited perspective we each bring to the table. Diversity, both in number and in the different types of information people have immediately available to them, is critical to the practice of collaboration innovation.

The leadership challenge: courage. People in the early days of their practice take the path of least resistance. In considering the community to convene, they, too, express a bias towards the available—in this case, by opening the enquiry to the sponsor’s immediate organization to start. Yet, in many cases, the members of a functional organization tend to see the same scenarios, repeatedly. The challenge collects duplicate ideas.

Koestenbaum notes that the courageous leader claims the power to initiate, act, and risk. The person who expresses leadership in their practice shows courage by inviting people whose immediately available experiences vary widely. Doing so means casting the net widely around the topic, including inviting clients, partners, and the world at large to participate (figure 2).

Figure 2: challenge yourself to invite the people who, through their available observations, can see the whole

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Convene on What’s Important

The scenario: People who practice collaborative innovation in all its forms speak in terms of “going for the jugular” in posing the critical question. They seek authentic transformation for themselves, their organizations, and their communities. These questions, too, may engender awkwardness and discomfort, as they challenge current practice and beliefs.

The practice challenge: experienced practitioners learn that time is the most precious commodity. Why would a community spend time pursuing an enquiry and sharing insights with their colleagues? The only—only—legitimate answer to that question is that the challenge posed relates to a critical juncture facing the organization, whether it be positive in the form of an opportunity or negative in the form of a threat. Getting to this point means that the practitioner has a way to elicit the critical question, knowing that the journey may have its bumps.

The leadership challenge: vision. The Digital Age strips away competitive barriers and lines of disintermediation that separate people in the world economy and community. This environment requires what Koestenbaum defines as the visionary leader—the one who always sees the larger perspective, thinking big and new. Your innovation challenges will fall flat if the leaders of the organization lack vision, keeping them dwelling too much on near-term discomfort at the expense of a better future.

Parting Thoughts

Of late I have been playing a simple word game. Whenever I see the word, “collaboration,” in print, I replace it with “leadership.” Thus, when McKinsey reports that “improved collaboration through social technologies could raise worker productivity by 20-25%,” I muse on, “improved leadership through social technologies could raise worker productivity by 20-25%.”

We advance as a group, organization, and community when we see collaboration—and the practice of collaborative innovation—as an expression of leadership.

To that end, I commend anyone pursuing collaborative innovation to Kostenbaum’s Leadership. Once you move beyond the mechanics of the practice, you encounter the why of the practice: why does the practice take hold in some organizations, but not in others. The answers to that question can be found in exploring Kostenbaum’s model of leadership greatness as a function of vision, reality, courage, and ethics. Take your own practice higher by couching your pursuit of it in the context of leadership.

By Doug Collins

About the author:


Doug Collins is an Innovation Architect who has specialized in the fuzzy front end of innovation for over 15 years. He has served a variety of roles in helping organizations navigate the fuzzy front end by creating forums, venues, and approaches where the group can convene to explore the critical question. As an author, Doug explores the critical questions relating to innovation in his book Innovation Architecture, Practical Approaches to Theory, Collaboration and Implementation. The book offers a blueprint for collaborative innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management.

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