How to best support innovation: through autonomy or collaboration?

| September 7, 2016

Innovation is typically fuelled by embracing apparent contradictions.

It can best be supported by encouraging both individual autonomy and group collaboration. Research has found that those who generate variety and are able to come up with a number of different ideas (such as corporate founders and entrepreneurs) are often highly individualistic.

The innovation process relies on original ideas from individuals, but ideally these ideas and passions then need to be combined with the refining synthesis of a group approach.

While the ideation stage in the innovation process requires individual initiative and creativity, the next stage of the process requires leveraging resources to come up with solutions.

This depends on efficient collaborative relationships.

There can be distinct problems with taking just one of these approaches independently of the other.

Although individualism can be driven by personal passion, for example, it can also lead to apathy and disengagement from the group. Autonomy can lead to competition as opposed to collaboration.

On the other side, although collaborative groups can produce higher levels of creativity, groups have been found to lower accountability and individual motivation to perform at a high level.

The most creative groups don’t compete – they collaborate

It has been found that the most creative teams in an organisation are those who have the confidence to share and debate ideas openly rather than competing for recognition and holding back ideas for themselves.

We saw this principle at work when we were once called in to assist with a particularly challenging cross-cultural stockbroker team based in Japan.

We soon discovered the ‘team’ was made up of individualist mercenaries, most of whom had been brought to Japan as expats from a number of different countries, and as a group they had become stuck in habitual ways of doing things rather than looking for innovative solutions.

Some of the traders shared with us how common it was for an individual to go in for the quick, short-term profit at the expense of relationships that their colleagues had built up with the banks over the long term, and at the expense of the relationships they themselves had built up with their colleagues.

We were able to frame some exercises to enable the group to discover these issues for themselves, and they soon came up with a simple but highly impactful innovation for their work environment: they decided to move their desks — which had been facing outwards and away from each other — to form one central table with a shared focus.

This simple adjustment encouraged them to openly discuss and challenge each other on ideas and to collaborate more effectively, and along with significantly increasing their collaboration and engagement they eventually tripled their revenue as a team.

They made a conscious choice to shift from a strongly individualistic mindset towards a more collective approach, and the results were outstanding.

Strategies to transition groups from autonomous ideas to collaborative solutions

So how do you help to move independent elements towards a unified collaborative outcome?

Perhaps we can take note of the approach of successful string quartets. These musicians have been found to be aware of and manage well the paradoxical tension between their desire for personal autonomy, on the one hand, and the need for clear leadership to unify the group, on the other.

Studies on how to encourage diverse teams to work together more effectively have identified three key strategies. These strategies appear to help individuals and groups manage some of the autonomy vs collaboration paradoxes.

We will demonstrate here how these principles can work in action by using the stockbroker group as an example:

Maintain a focus on the task

By helping them to recognise the importance of helping each other to reach a common unified goal by focusing on the importance of the tasks that needed to be completed and the ways collaboration would help, rather than focusing on individual personalities, we were able to help individuals get beyond the individualistic mindset.

Value differences

By talking through the unique potentials of different individuals from different backgrounds (cultures, business backgrounds, experiences etc), we were able to build more respect.

Reduce power distance

By addressing the issue of an apparent power distance between the expats and the local Japanese, we helped individuals to identify any the ways these could block collaborative behavior.

The challenge is to ensure there is an ongoing recognition of the importance of the autonomy of individuals, but also a respect for the need for collaboration.

And that will never be easy!

Andrew and Gaia Grant
Gaia and Andrew Grant, Founders and Directors of Tirian International, are innovation culture consultants and facilitators, post-graduate researchers (University of Sydney Business School) and top-ranking keynote speakers who work with a range of organisations (including Fortune 500 companies and NFPs). Together they have authored The Innovation Race: How to change a culture to change the game (Wiley August 2016)