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It took me two decades of work, a marriage, a divorce, and a masters thesis to understand that I have spent much of my life curious about and actively exploring a series of interconnected and related questions, which I have adopted as my personal design challenge:

How do people self-organize in purposeful ways? How do they network their gifts and talents together to solve problems, create value, find joy, and make meaning? How do they grow and transform over time creating the evolutionary transitions that we understand as progress?

More importantly, I have come to understand that we have a new imperative to understand the mechanics of these processes, such that we can mimic them to accelerate the pace of change.

I call this the collaborative innovation imperative.

And it is the imperative of the 21st century.

This is a story in three parts. Here, I explore why the innovation of the 21st century must be collaborative. I’ll explore how we understand, and fail to understand collaboration and innovation. In Part II, I’ll share the findings over years of exploration — what are the conditions that enable people to come together and strive together. Beyond colliding with unusual suspects, how do you organize together? How do you find new ways to create value together? What is the supporting infrastructure that can mimic and accelerate this process? I’ll share finding from years of learning and doing — academic exploration and real-world prototypes. Finally, in Part III, I’ll talk about platforms for collaborative innovation — what exists today and what is missing in the market.

There is a simple reason that collaborative innovation is the 21st century imperative:

Our world is increasingly complex and interconnected. The world’s problems follow suit. Accordingly, our approach to solution designs needs to be as well. It is that simple. But we keep trying incremental approaches and point solutions, and we keep being disappointed.

Let’s take any issue — starting with health. I don’t want to start with “health care” because “health care” has become the industrial solution to “health.” Health is made up of our physical and mental well-being. It can be managed and nurtured in a variety of ways that work across daily habits and routines, surrounding environments, relationships, spiritual practice, etc. But that’s not what the industrial solution looks like — it looks like sick care, a point solution that treats the physical ailments of the body. The system that supports it is organized around the goal of sick care.

If we can do that, we can also organize around the concept of “health” — a concept that BIF’s Patient Experience Lab has proven in the market a couple of times. Yet for some reason, that approach is often touted as “too complicated.”

Unfortunately, while collaborative innovation is the imperative of the 21st century, the phrase also contains two words central to a game of Buzz Word Bingo in almost any environment. Both are so overused that many audiences have demanded that we create new words. We want collaborative work environments, collaborative learning, and even collaborative consumption. Everything is innovative — from chairs to the new lunch menu at Applebees.

So then, what is collaborative innovation?
Collaborative innovation is the answer to a job to be done. But more often then not, it’s the answer to the wrong job. When people say they want collaboration, what they are really saying is that they don’t want to go it alone; they want to think out loud, or they want validation of an idea to lower the cost of failure. Collaborative innovation then becomes a pacifier to the lonely innovator — the person on the bleeding, painful, crazy edge of what is possible.

I think this is important — we all get better faster by thinking together — but it limits the real frontier and potential of collaboration, and doesn’t necessarily lead to innovation, which we define as actually creating value for people in new ways.

The real frontier is when we start acting together — by making and creating. Here, we can collaborate to design concepts, to prototype concepts, and to scale/commercialize concepts. We work collaboratively because we can’t get there alone.

Here’s why.
We all have our own blind spots. We operate through lenses and models that create efficiencies, but they also serve as constraints or blinders. The value of random collisions is that when we combine our collective lenses, we can see the opportunities in our blind spots. We can find opportunities at the edge of our own visibility. We can create wholly new opportunities in our opposing viewpoints and models through the creative resolution of our tensions. In this sense, our perspectives, experiences, and lenses are ingredients that we can combine in new and different ways to collaboratively innovate together.

Second, we collaborate to prototype together because just like the ideation phase — we need to combine and recombine capabilities in order to create a tangible concept that people can experience. It is unlikely that we have all the capabilities we need, and we need to borrow them from others. In my experience, organizations have 65–70% of the capabilities in-house for prototyping new models, and everything else needs to be cobbled together in other ways.

Finally, similar to the prototyping phase, commercialization requires new value chains at scale. Collaborative innovation in the commercialization phase enables us to create gravity, organize the supply chain, and catalyze the network effect to go to market successfully.

All of this is easy to explain on the whiteboard.

In the real world, the challenge, and opportunity, for all of this, is that it requires more than coming together — it requires trust, alchemy, and infrastructure.

It requires the “right” conditions.


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