Three Ways to Achieve Breakthrough Innovation

How might you foment authentic breakthroughs through collaborative innovation? The fuzzy front end, by name and nature, fails to lend itself to foregone conclusions. Yet, as the innovation practitioner, you can take certain steps that increase the likelihood of achieving breakthroughs. In this article innovation architect Doug Collins explores the most critical steps for people who see the practice as a means of transforming the organization.

Have It Your Way

People who sponsor collaborative innovation expect certain outcomes. Some seek “low-hanging fruit”: small, incremental forms of innovation that visibly improve existing processes and products. The organization can see the immediate benefits of the practice.

Others, by contrast,seek “disruptive innovation.” The ideas, when pursued with the requisite amounts of vision and courage, hold the potential to transform the organization’s value chain and by extension the market as a whole.

Sponsors who seek the latter may find themselves thinking, “I value the community engagement that the practice brings. However, the ideas seem incremental in nature.”

They ask, “My team had already considered many of the ideas. What happened?”

In this article I explore three techniques that increase the likelihood that your collaborative innovation challenge elicits a diverse set of potentially breakthrough ideas: question phrasing, independence, and diversity. A collaborative innovation challenge is an enquiry that the person wrestling with a particular question poses to the organization, the enterprise, or the wider community. Community members in turn respond with ideas on how to explore, address, and resolve the question.

Seek the Transformative in Question Phrasing

The late Arthur Van Gundy wrote the seminal work on the phrasing of challenge questions in his book, Getting to Innovation. His approach, effective, endures. A basic form of his phrasing follows:

How might we [increase / decrease] the [factor] in order to achieve [goal]?

This phrasing can at the same time lend itself to incremental ideation. The “increase,” for example, relates to the factor as the community experiences it today. How might we increase productivity in order to better manage our [existing] resources?

People who seek breakthroughs will find works by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoffan important source of inspiration for phrasing questions, by comparison. Weisbord and Janoff have written widely about how groups of people can convene in order to realize authentic transformation for themselves, their organizations, and their communities. In their work they have identified a series of powerful, transformative questions. One example follows:

What [question / idea], were we to pursue it together, might lead to authentic breakthroughs for the [organization / community]?

Weisbord’s and Janoff’s questions, conceived from helping groups of people navigate significant change, hold great, transformative power for challenge teams (figure 1).

Figure 1: challenge questions vary by the possibility for transformation they offer to the community

Allow for Independent Contribution

As an experiment the behavioral economist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman asked one set of visitors to the San Francisco Exploratorium two questions…

  • Is the height of the tallest redwood more or less than 1,200 feet?
  • What is your best guess about the height of the tallest redwood?

He asked a second set of visitors a variation on the two questions…

  • Is the height of the tallest redwood more or less than 180 feet?
  • What is your best guess about the height of the tallest redwood?

The first reference of 1,200 feet exceeded the second reference of 180 feet by 1,020 feet.

People who answered the first set of questions estimated the height of the tallest redwood at 844 feet, on average. People who answered the second set estimated the height at 282 feet, on average. The mean variance was 562 feet, even though neither group was provided a valid reference for the actual height of the tallest redwood.

Kahneman’s experiment demonstrated the power of what he calls anchoring. That is, our minds work in such a way that a point of reference, no matter how valid or invalid, will influence our thinking—and, thus, the nature of our ideas.

Relative to the practice of collaborative innovation, the wisdom of the crowds becomes available when each member of the community—the crowd—has an opportunity to contribute their idea independent of the ideas that their fellow members contribute. Absent independence, the earlier contributions serve as de facto anchors for each subsequent contributor.

People who facilitate in-person forms of collaborative innovation as part of group meeting have for years achieved this independence by posing a challenge and then asking each participant to spend time on their own,composing their response. After each person commits their thinking to paper, the facilitator asks participants to share their ideas in round-robin fashion.

In the virtual form of collaborative innovation, the sponsor enables each community member to post their own idea before they can view and comment on ideas that their peers submit. Community managers can provide this virtual form of independence by, for example, dividing the contribution and collaboration phrases into discrete, separate segments (figure 2).

Figure 2: securing independent contributions in the in-person and virtual forms of collaborative innovation

Click to enlarge

Value Diversity

Diversity of community matters for two reasons. First, soliciting a diverse group of participants for your innovation community increases your sample size. The likelihood that a small group of people with shared experiences arrive at the same conclusion—set of ideas—decreases. Second, soliciting a diverse group of participants reduces the risk that you misapply expert intuition for challenges in which you explore unpredictable environments.

People, when first beginning their practice of collaborative innovation, will choose the challenge sponsor’s organization as the community. If, for example, the sponsor happens to be the chief financial officer (CFO), then the challenge team proposes that the finance organization serve as the community. This approach, while seemingly safe, leads to incremental thinking: a group of people with similar backgrounds and expertise tend to reach similar and, in unpredictable environments, less than optimal conclusions about the best ways forward.

Challenge teams that seek breakthrough innovation commit to casting the net widely internally and externally.

Figure 3 shows one approach. The challenge team starts the sponsor’s organization (1). They next move up and down the value stream to include clients and vendors, respectively (2). They next choose a group—or groups—that may work in a different context but have a similar charter (3). Lastly, they navigate that group’s value chain (4).

Figure 3: increase the diversity of your community by moving up and down the value chain

Click to enlarge

Advancing Your Practice

The practice of collaborative innovation in both its physical and virtual forms can open the door to authentic transformation by the nature of the ideas that community members contribute in response to the challenge posed by the sponsor.

Challenge teams, through their practice, can increase the likelihood that the community conceives and evolves breakthrough ideas by the phrasing of the question posed to elicit ideas, by ensuring individual contribution ahead of group collaboration, and by exercising the discipline to invite a diverse group of people to convene. Ultimately and essentially, pursuing disruptive innovation demands powerful expressions of leadership on behalf of all involved: a combination of vision and courage.Taking these practical steps can help the groupreach its goals as each member develops their capabilities.

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: Break down the wall, the freedom is outside from shutterstock.com

  • Jiahong Juda

    Hi Doug,

    Excellent blog! You may know the work in Art of Hosting (AoH) community. They have developed a body of knowledge and process for authentic engagement for in a community for innovation.

    - Jiahong

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