Thinking of Creating an Innovation Centre of Excellence? Think again.

Organizations create centers of excellence to distill and disseminate best practices on any number of topics. Using this approach to support collaborative innovation has certain drawbacks, however. In this article Doug Collins identifies the drawbacks and explores an alternative way to support collaborative innovation which respects the tenets of the practice by adopting principles from the Montessori Method.

Relax Ay Voo

People who lead their organizations’ collaborative innovation programs cannot relax until they have brought the first one or two collaborative innovation campaigns to a successful close. No wonder. For many, this engagement represents their first exploration of the potential that the practice of collaborative innovation can offer their organization and them. They appreciate that implementing the practice transforms the ways in which the community works together and behaves towards one another. Change brings tension borne of uncertainty.

At some point, the leader sees the community introducing compelling, novel approaches to seemingly intractable problems. They see their colleagues realizing their potential for leadership in forming and pursuing ideas to resolution with the campaign sponsors. Nobody has lost a limb or their career. Life is good—or, more to the point, life is more open, dynamic, and engaging than it had been: characteristic prerequisites for making headway in the knowledge economy.

In turn, the number of practitioners, including sponsors, community managers, coaches, moderators, and facilitators—grows with the growing interest in, and demand for, collaborative innovation. At some further point, the people who lead the collaborative innovation program ask if we should support the community in more formal, structured ways. If so, what might that structure look like? What goals do we set for the program, beyond satisfying requests to support the next campaign?

In this article, I explore an approach to supporting a collaborative innovation program in a way that respects the tenets of the practice by applying the principles of the Montessori Method, albeit in the adult realm.

Best Practices

I sometimes hear the concept of founding a “center of excellence” to more formally support collaborative innovation. The center may include a curriculum and a schedule of events: Collaborative Innovation 101, for example. Class, please take your seats.

Labeling the activity in this way introduces a conceptual drawback, however. Doing so works against the spirit of openness and enquiry that defines effective collaborative innovation. Someone appears to have achieved excellence: let us come in, sit down, and shut up so that we can hear what they have to say. Excellence demands appreciation and disdains engagement.

Whereas we can convene to share our experience, each member’s aspirations and circumstances define their vision of what constitutes excellence. How often have we been presented with a “best” practice, only to discover that it achieved that lofty status by virtue of the fact that someone took the time to document it? We adopt and neglect elements of a practice, making it “best,” relative to our needs.

To this end, to the extent that the “center of excellence” model equates to the mainstream form of education (i.e., sit down, open the book, and listen), then the “innovation collaboratory” model equates to the Montessori Method. Specifically, the latter approach—translated to the practice of collaborative innovation—respects that…

  • As the people who lead and participate in collaborative innovation, practitioners learn at their own pace and follow their own interests.
  • Understanding comes through the collaborative innovation practitioner’s own experiences via the materials—their tools of the trade.
  • The collaborative innovation practitioner has uninterrupted work cycles in which to pursue their exploration of the practice
  • In line with hosting “multi-age” classrooms, collaborative innovation practitioners pursuing the various forms and focuses of the practice work together: open and enquiry led; internal and external.

Applying the Montessori Method

What might applying the Montessori Method look like within the organization? Consider the following scenario.

Imagine that people within the organization not only want help running their campaigns, but also guidance in pursing the practice of collaborative innovation. They express a powerful form of leadership through their enquiry and in embracing authentic transformation.

You lead the collaborative innovation program on behalf of the organization. You secure a place—a physical space—where people who want to pursue their practice can work without interruption. You reserve a time—let’s say from 8 to 11 a.m. every Friday—when the people can come to work on their plans. You provide white boards and templates that depict the day in the life of a collaborative innovation campaign to each practitioner by way of providing them materials. Their templates vary by the form and focus of collaborative innovation they choose to explore. You circulate amongst the practitioners, engaging with them and exploring their campaigns with them.

The materials share common attributes—they cover certain themes—such as question formation, community mapping, scheduling, resolution, and modes of engagement (e.g., in person and virtual).

Perhaps, towards the end of each collaboratory session, practitioners share their experiences with one another.

What are you not doing in the above scenario? You are not giving PowerPoint presentations. You are not preparing three-hour lectures, which should come as a relief to everyone involved. You are not gearing up to convince a fellow practitioner that your practice is the best practice.

Relax. Devote your energies to engaging with your fellow practitioners in the same way that they aspire to engage their community. Accept that applying traditional methods of learning to prepare people to engage their community in open, enquiry-led ways makes no sense whatsoever. Training in most organizations has largely become an exercise in achieving pro forma compliance. Feel free to say “no” on behalf of your practitioners. Instead, let your practice inform your behavior in the same way that Maria Montessori allowed her observations on the way children learn inform her pedagogy and the method she ultimately discovered. Here again, I do not imply that in mining the value that the Montessori Method offers you in turn treat your fellow practitioners as children.

Get Thee to a Montessori

By way of next steps, arrange to spend time with a teacher or two proficient in the Montessori Method. Perhaps this person teaches at your neighborhood school. You can also locate people though the following web resource. Call them. Offer to buy them breakfast, where you can gain their perspective on applying the method to your program for collaborative innovation. Likewise, order a copy of Paula Lillard’s Montessori in the Classroom. She offers perspective on what occurs in a modern-day Montessori classroom.

Some may question bringing a teacher versed in the Montessori Method into the conversation. My response: you guide your clients to seek diversity as they build their community. Take your own counsel by allowing a diversity of views to inform the development of the program by which you support the practice of collaborative innovation within your organization.

Practice What You Preach

In closing, I encourage you as the leader of your organization’s collaborative innovation program to consider the following as you evolve your practice:

  • What opportunities do you have to model the program that reflects and respects the spirit of open enquiry that you encourage your fellow practitioners to embrace as they develop their campaigns? Do you practice what you preach as you support them?
  • What opportunities do you have to gain a diversity of perspectives in developing your program—in this instance, soliciting the views of a skilled Montessori teacher to inform your program?

As you work with the people in your organization who choose to pursue collaborative innovation, you have the opportunity to help them realize their potential for leadership in embracing the practice. Embrace the same opportunities for yourself as you work through what constitutes an effective mode of engagement by way of supporting them in their endeavors

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.

  • NamasteMontessoriSchool

    I’ve always found so many “out of the classroom applications” to Montessori’s philosophy of education throughout my life. I’m a trained Montessori teacher and Head of School with a passion for business and community growth. And I’m available for coffee or breakfast anytime!
    find us on Facebook: Namaste Montessori School

  • Nicole

    Montessori trained teacher here available in Atlanta, GA for breakfast or coffee! 

  • Doug Collins


    Thanks for the heads-up.

    Should we start a Montessori Innovators group on LinkedIn to help people make connections?

    Interestingly, although not surprisingly, it’s been the Montessori teachers who have lead this enquiry.


  • Nicole

    Sounds good to me.  How do we start?


  • Roza Mouithsone

    Hi Doug!
    It is intersting to read your post and I am happy you mention Monessori Methods! My son goes to a Montessori kindergarden here in Sweden and we just love the way they work with the kids. Regarding innovation, I work for Projectplace and on our blog we discuss the common mistakes companies do when they set up an innovative system:

    Kind regards,

  • Doug Collins


    I value the kind words. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the most engaging comments on the article have come from people with experience with the Montessori Methods. I love the spirit of inquisitiveness they bring to the table.

    Do you find yourself making connections between your experience with the Montessori Methods and your work with Projectplace?


  • Roza Mouithsone


    I believe there are some similatities between Montessori methods and Projectplace. The similarities I see are: developing creativity, problem solving, critical thinking and time-management skills, to contribute to society and the environment, and to become fulfilled persons :- )


  • Darin M. Bicknell

    As a Montessorian the only challenge would be to create the environment where you can actually have meaningful and sustained work with adults who may not be ‘normalized’ or intrinsically motivated.

    The drive to learn in the Montessori child is often inhibited or has even been forcefully excised from an adult. The environment in Montessori includes the ‘teacher’ and the ‘teacher’ prepares the environment and them self to be there only to facilitate and protect the child’s discovery.

    Can that be emulated with adults? Of course it can but it requires either a group of selfless people with a collective goal that is intrinsic to everyone or a great mentor from which protection and support is given.

  • Rebecca

    Dear Friend of Montessori,

    name is Rebecca Keith.  I have been a
    Montessori guide for almost 40 years.  I
    am currently Head of School at One World Montessori
    School and Head of The Maria
    Montessori Teacher Training Center, a MACTE accredited teacher training center
    in San Jose,
    California.  I am currently doing research for my doctoral
    degree in Educational Leadership at Saint Mary’s College of California, and I would
    greatly appreciate your assistance in recruiting potential participants for my

    I am interested in
    exploring the epistemological development of former Montessori students who
    were co-creators of themselves in a Montessori prepared environment for a
    minimum of six years, as they complete their first year of college.  The participants in this study would be
    initially asked to complete a survey called the Learning Environment Preference
    (LEP) on line.   Some of them would also
    be asked to participate in an interview, either face to face or on Skype.

    The data collected for
    this study could add to our understanding of how the Montessori Method, with
    its developmentally appropriate prepared environment and approach, supports and
    nurtures epistemological development.

    If you know of any
    former Montessori students who meet these criteria, could you please have them
    contact me at: [email protected]
    I would appreciate it if you could pass this request on to anyone else
    who might be able to help me identify qualified participants, and would
    encourage any former students you are able to contact to inform the former
    classmates about this study.

    Thank you so much for
    considering my request.  With your
    assistance, I will have the opportunity to expand our understanding of the
    potential benefits of a Montessori education.



    of School, One World Montessori School

    of Training, Maria Montessori Teacher Training Center

    Foxworthy Ave., San Jose, CA 95118

    [email protected]




  • Doug Collins


    Your conclusion makes sense to me. I suspect that the former option is the more realistic and powerful of the two: “requires either a group of selfless people with a collective goal that is intrinsic to everyone or a great mentor from which protection and support is given.”

    You make me wonder if the adult equivalent of the Montessori environment is not the one Senge describes in The Fifth Discipline.


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  • Nicholas Selk

    Hey Doug,

    Interesting piece.

    Per your article:

    “How often have we been presented with a “best” practice, only to discover that it achieved that lofty status by virtue of the fact that someone took the time to document it? We adopt and neglect elements of a practice, making it “best,” relative to our needs.”

    Kind of ironic, no? Given the fact that you are trying to tell us your best practices? ;)

    Not sure I agree with how you are using the term Center of Excellence (CoE). The very nature of a center of excellence is almost identical to what you are referring to in your “physical room”- where potential campaign sponsors can go in and learn from someone who has the experience and best practices to help them be successful.

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