How better collaboration can boost innovation and success in the new normal

Game-changing ideas are born of cooperative thinking; here are four ways businesses can achieve this to thrive amid unprecedented challenges.

By WP Creative Group

Rapid innovation is crucial for success in today’s demanding business world. Customers want everything now, there’s pressure to meet new ESG goals, and the pace of technology means product lifecycles are ephemeral. Indeed, 71% of business leaders expect they’ll have to accelerate new offerings just to maintain their market position, according to a recent Forrester study.

Innovating at speed and scale is a daunting challenge, but there is a solution—collaboration. Collaboration allows organizations to bring their best thinking to bear on a problem, and it’s the wellspring of invention. But how can leaders facilitate this, especially given the disruptions that arose from the pandemic and the new workstyles that emerged in response?

Here are four steps business leaders in any industry can take to build an organization where collaboration, aligned to our new normal, can thrive and drive innovation.

At many companies, innovation is a task meant just for certain people, like R&D teams or “chief innovation officers.” Alternately, innovative thinking is encouraged only at certain events, like retreats or brainstorming sessions. At these meetings, this approach tells the rest of the organization that their ideas are not as valued, and limits input from individuals who may have unique and valuable perspectives to share.

“The defining feature of an innovation culture is the belief that innovation is every employee’s job, not just the domain of a few,” says Dominic Price, resident work futurist at Atlassian, makers of collaborative work management applications Trello and Confluence and project management tools such as Jira. “That belief has to manifest in the way the business operates day-to-day.”

For an innovation culture to thrive, Price says, its leaders must believe that everyone has the capacity to innovate and create, and it must give their people the autonomy to try and to fail without fear. Atlassian’s Head of Platform, Mike Tria, adds that executives must be willing to “take bets and not count on hard ROI each time.” It’s a strategy that will pay off “in the long run,” says Tria.

Yet how do you empower all team members to contribute when some are naturally more assertive in meetings, especially in this new world of hybrid work where remote employees may feel less connected? At Slack, team members are now asked to generate ideas before meetings. “They put all the ideas out on a table in a virtual room, and then you have a conversation,” says Brian Elliott, executive leader of the Future Forum at Slack. Elliott says this practice limits “groupthink” and allows all voices to be heard. Within a few months of doing this, the company saw concrete business benefits. For example, its release pace accelerated as internal teams were “finding ways to do it better,” says Elliott.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) also focuses on written ideas—which it calls document culture. Before meetings, participants put their ideas in memos. The start of the meeting is silent while the team reads the memos, and then discussion begins. Writing forces people to organize their thoughts, and readers must focus on the quality of the idea rather than who’s offering it, says Stephen Brozovich, principal evangelist at Amazon Web Services’ HR Transformation division. To increase the focus on the ideas themselves, the memos are anonymized.

Document-based meetings also improve hybrid work, when collaboration happens between people who are onsite and offsite. These meetings “change the voices heard in the room, because they aren’t dominated by those who are centrally located,” says Brozovich. The inclusivity benefits are clear, as this model allows input from individuals regardless of location or personal circumstances, such as childcare responsibilities.

Even virtual meetings have inclusivity benefits, notes Molly Hellerman, global head of innovation programs at Atlassian. “In our research about how meetings are run, we’ve found they tend to be more inclusive when we see each face individually,” Hellerman says. For example, there is no head of the table. To further promote inclusivity, some managers are timing how long each person speaks, or have a rule where if one participant dials in, everyone does—even if they’re onsite.

Innovation at scale is best achieved when decision-making is delegated to agile, cross-functional teams “with high levels of autonomy,” according to the Forrester study, which was commissioned by Atlassian. But the effort stalls when useful information is hoarded by designated “innovation teams,” the study notes.

To encourage wider collaboration, companies must tear down information silos, Hellerman says. Teams must be willing to share their works-in-progress and be open to input from throughout the organization. “The more you include people and get their ideas early, the faster you can iterate,” she says.

Open information sharing inside companies can take many forms. Atlassian’s collaboration platform, Confluence, provides an easy way for people to create, edit and discuss documents related to project work. Importantly, managers should resist the temptation to restrict access to documents and forums unless truly necessary. “We should be able to stumble upon others’ work in the digital realm, just as we used to catch it out of the corner of our eyes as we passed their desks,” says Leisa Reichelt, Atlassian’s head of research and insights.

Collaborative technology is “critical to supporting innovation and more agile ways of working, especially in this age of distributed work,” Hellerman says. And let’s face it—email just isn’t the best option for open, asynchronous collaboration. In addition to document collaboration, project management tools like Atlassian’s Jira and Trello are important for ensuring that good ideas make their way to execution.

The platform matters, too. It should be open, flexible and customizable. And it should be extensible, so it can support an organization’s existing assets. Moving to the cloud, meanwhile, enables experiments that are vital for innovation, as the cloud lowers the cost of trials by allowing organizations to rent rather than buy computing power and to pilot emerging technologies with less investment. “Using the cloud can reduce the risk of innovation considerably,” says Mark Schwartz, enterprise strategist at Amazon Web Services.

Cloud-based applications also let users more easily integrate the tools they use to get their work done. The result: Atlassian customers can work however they work best “without being forced into a cookie-cutter workflow,” says Tria. The platform also is infused with innovations like A.I. and Machine Learning to simplify and automate certain workflows.

Bottom line: it’s time to start experimenting to see what works, starting with a realization that “you have to be very intentional to do this well,” Hellerman says. “Do you have a culture that rewards and recognizes people who are challenging the status quo? That is celebrating experimentation? If you have that, then you have a higher likelihood of being successful.”

*2020 Forrester Research survey of Information Technology Decision Makers