insights & research

The Power of Collaborative Innovation

By Paul Almas, Vice president, Design and Development
Basadur Applied Creativity Inc.

Try to think of another word that is as frequently used in today's media as the word, “Change.” Not only is it front and centre on the World Wide Web, our television programs and our newspapers, the Democrats used "change" as the centerpiece of their winning election strategy. It's a word that finds common currency in our personal lexicon, simply because change is not something that only happens to the climate, nations, governments, corporations, politicians, business leaders and our sports heroes – it happens to us. John Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” The nagging questions that continue to plague us as individuals and as organizations are, “Why must change be so difficult? Why do we fear it so much? And why do so many choose to live with the status quo rather than change to preferable futures?

So much intellectual energy has been expended on the matter of change one might conclude that all has been said and done that can be. As perpetual and timeless as change is, it presents new and unique challenges for each generation. In our present age, the 1992 U. N. Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro may have helped jump start our most current pre-occupation with global climate change and the subsequent plethora of implications. President Dwight Eisenhower said, “Neither a wise or a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him,” and Thomas Jefferson concluded that, “Every generation needs a new revolution.” Rio has certainly confirmed these two presidential insights by unleashing a world wide crusade to save the planet. The clear implication is that we all must change or suffer dire consequences – some would say, the end of civilization as we know it.

What is so different about change these days? It is increasingly instant, wider reaching in its impact and more frequent in our lifetime that ever before. Change has always generated consequences that reorder personal and corporate worlds for minutes, hours, days, years and even the balance of life. The increase in speed, perpetuity, sophistication and proliferation of electronic interconnectivity and information processing technology ensures change is pervasive, even intrusive – certainly unavoidable.

When sudden and negative consequences of change rock our world, the resulting shock and fear of uncertainty can immobilize, as we witnessed in the tragedy of 9/11 and now are seeing again in the chaos of the Wall Street meltdown. Positive change can be just as disorienting. Observe the difficulty lottery winners frequently experience attempting to successfully navigate new options presented to them by the sudden acquisition of wealth. There is a default to preserve the status quo. Change tends to be an unwelcome intruder.

But change is neither negative nor positive – it is just CHANGE. Certainly the consequences can be either, but we can choose how we wish to respond. As individuals, or as an organization, we can be defensive and become a victim, or we can conclude that change has always been and always will be as a fact of life and consider it an opportunity to re-order a preferred future. Easier said than done? Absolutely, if we have no system or structure through which to process the nature, scale and impact. In fact, it is safe to say that without an organized process to think through a new situation, it is impossible to achieve a worthwhile outcome.

Given the inevitability of continuous, accelerating change in our lives and working environments, acquiring a toolbox of thinking patterns, skills and processes to manage successfully is essential in processing new realities into positive outcomes. Rick Warren, an author and church leader recently became internationally prominent when he hosted interviews with the two U.S. Presidential candidates. He was interviewed by Paul Bradshaw and on the subject of change he said, “I used to think that life was hills and valleys – you go through a dark time, then you go to the mountaintop, back and forth. I don't believe that anymore. Rather than life being hills and valleys, I believe that it's kind of like two rails on a railroad track, and at all times you have something good and something bad in your life. No matter how good things are in your life, there is always something bad that needs to be worked on. No matter how bad things are in your life, there is always something to be thankful for. You can focus positively on your problems, or you can focus negatively on your problems.”

Warren's unstated inference is that a lifestyle or a corporate culture bent towards problem solving is a valuable component in being successful because there will always be challenges to deal with. But to consistently see our purposes blossom we must be clear about what they are - find them and define them. Initial perceptions of problems tend to be partial and incomplete. Without a disciplined thinking process, we rush into action with partial assumptions informing a solution that may, in fact, make the original problem worse. The process thinking skill of consciously reserving judgment to creatively find the facts and only then converge on an accurate problem definition is the key to solving the right problem. To do otherwise is to waste time solving perceived problems that, in fact, may not be problems at all or may not be your problems. To creatively solve problems successfully we must revolutionize how we think.

Becoming a lifestyle problem solver means learning to think differently through developing three cognitive skills that usually don't come naturally. First, the ability to generate or diverge on many ideas, options and viewpoints of the problem without judging any of them is essential. When we are diverging or creatively expanding our thoughts on the problem, simultaneously, we carefully avoid coming to conclusion or judgment of any of them. Only after we have completed this first thinking process and reserved judgment, can we begin an evaluation or a convergence on selecting the best ideas to carry forward.

The benefits of this approach to creative problem solving in a group are several. By consciously separating divergent and convergent thinking, the typical frustration and non-productivity generally associated with group problem solving is substantially reduced. The secret is the discipline of reserving judgment. Rushing to premature judgment has always been a destructive element that crushes new ideas that are as fragile as incubating eggs. The strongest, most successful ideas hatch to see the light of day and move on to being part or all of a solution when the same problem solvers that uninhibitedly were able to generate the broadest possible array of creative ideas, options, viewpoints and contributing facts because the threat of judgment was removed, follow through by actively converging on the best ideas. The level of positive ownership and commitment to a new solution is greatly increased as the group sees their creative thinking move through a disciplined, objective process that engenders a keen sense of team that, in turn, removes potential conflict from gaining consensus and ensures improved levels of organizational harmony. Of course the most important outcome is positively implemented change. The kind of change that creates unified organizations and makes them places where people want to be.

Even better, the collaborative power of group innovation can help recharge organizational culture and identify undiscovered opportunities for the next wave of growth.

We welcome your responses to the idea of becoming a lifestyle problem solver and other thoughts that have been stimulated by this article. Please contact us.


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