Collaboration is the Key to Innovation in Today’s Knowledge Organizations

Perhaps Michelangelo needed complete isolation to release his David from the marble. But I would argue that there are very few endeavors in this world that don’t require a team effort, the sharing of ideas, and collaboration to realize our goals. Moreover, I would insist that for today’s organizations to have any hope of competing in the global marketplace, collaboration is a core competency.

From Boxes to Links

Think of any organization, board, or team (whether civil society, government or industry) as comprising compartments of functions, each responsible for contributing in its way to the overarching goal. In fact, most organizations use organograms to simply and graphically depict the division of labor and lines of reporting.

This compartmentalization is necessary to create efficiency, minimize duplication of effort through clear roles and responsibilities, and ensure that things don’t fall through the cracks. On the other hand, this siloing naturally creates boundaries between functions, making it difficult for people stuck in the boxes doing the work to connect with one another.

This is how our postindustrial age organizations evolved – and this is where most of them remain.

Despite globalization and the explosion of collaborative technologies to facilitate knowledge transfer, we remain comfortable in our compartments, sending email to one another and avoiding meetings.

But without cross-pollination, the integration of disparate ideas into innovations (and the transformation of data and information into knowledge) is an afterthought. Oftentimes it never happens; the compartmentalized, half-baked ideas never get utilized, and remain stuck in their boxes on the organogram.

This is where collaboration comes into play. Collaboration means to co-labor, work together. Beyond a process or handy set of tools, it is foremost a mindset that encourages the connection across boundaries, breaking down the traditional barriers between functions and allowing for dialogue, the integration of ideas, and creation of shared commitments.

So where do you begin to create a culture of collaboration in your organization?

The Answers Lie Within

One place to begin removing those barriers to connection is with the belief that the answers lie within the people.

Kurt Lewin, the father of the field of Organization Development, was the proponent of this idea and a new postindustrial-age philosophy that organizations functioned not as machines, but as human systems. Thus, in order to achieve high productivity, leaders needed to develop a collaborative, rather than top-down, relationship with their people.

Over the course of my sustainable community development work in Mexico, I have found Lewin’s theories and tools to be extraordinarily relevant. As an intervener in the process, Lewin claims, it is my job to tap into the wisdom of the people so that they can take charge of their own change. Yet, how tempting it can be to arrive in the communities with a project ready to go that will set them on the path toward sustainability!

The Mexicans refer to this (pre-determined approach) as paternalismo, and it certainly does not serve the creativity or commitment of a group. Utilizing this approach, the project, which is anything but sustainable, would surely die once I walk away.

This idea applies in organizations as well. If leaders are not mindful, they will feed (or force) their ideas to their teams, and in doing so, remove the innate will and creativity that exists in even the most motivated of individuals.

Douglas McGregor (MIT Sloan School of Management, 1960) said: “The motivation, potential for development, and capacity for assuming responsibility…are all present in people. The leader does not put them there.” This humanist theory still applies 50 years later and is more relevant than ever for today’s knowledge organization seeking to compete in the global marketplace.

Thus, leaders who adopt the belief that the answers lie within their organizations willbegin to listen to their people, creating thenecessary space for dialogue and cross-pollinationof ideas. Workers, as well, willstart listening to one another, buildingupon each other’s ideas andmorphing new, better andoriginal ideas instead of carboncopies or renovations.

The belief that the answers lie within also builds theconfidence necessary totransform an idea into reality. It isnot enough to have an idea; the commitment mustbe there to realize the ideas and then take them tomarket – or to the next step in the developmentprocess.


Anne Pellicciotto is founder and president of SeeChange ( and has 20 years of experience helping business, international institutions, governments, and NGOs with strategic, sustainable transformation. Anne is currently testing the waters of her own change, serving in Peace Corps Mexico as a specialist in sustainable development for the San Luis Potosi Delegation of SEMARNAT (the Mexican EPA). She is also an invited professor at Polytechnica University (UPSLP) teaching in the school of engineering on themes of sustainable, organizational, and human development.

Anne has a BS in Business Administration/Decision Information Sciences (University of Maryland) and a MS in Organization Development (America University/School of Public Policy). She can be contacted at


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