Non-profit, for-profit; government entity, grass-roots movement; financial services, fast-fashion. The Boston Innovation Festival uniquely melded all of these organization types together to focus on a topic every organization is thinking about in some way, shape or form: innovation. I actually can’t remember a single event I’ve been too (and there have been A LOT!) where the attendees had such a diverse representation and yet felt so connected. For three days attendees debated, discussed and heralded the various approaches they were leveraging (or hoping to leverage) to drive innovation in their organizations. For me, one critical success factor seemed to be at the center of so many conversations and presentations: collaboration. How did collaboration emerge as the secret to successful innovation?
- Collaboration was the catalyst behind the event’s success. Nearly everyone I spoke with said they come to the FEI event to connect with people outside of their industry, to learn innovation tactics and methods from other teams and professionals, and to take those tactics back to their own project or organization. Conversations and presentations at the conference were open and honest by design. People were genuinely interested in learning how they could improve their own efforts and were open to helping others tripping their way through their own innovation journey. In the sessions, I rarely heard claims of having figured it all out, “We’re the best at innovation!” Instead, I heard, “Here’s what we did, here’s what worked, here’s what didn’t work, here’s what I wish we could have done.”
- Collaboration takes a lot of different teams to drive innovation in a big company. One CPG company shared how they built a separate foresights department to help facilitate innovation projects across teams. This team was separate from their R&D department, which collaborated on more functional innovation. Similarly, a major financial institution detailed how they move innovation from early stage, incubator teams to fully-integrated entities across various business units. A leader from a major retailer also shared a story of working across teams to garner influence capital to introduce investors to the idea of funding innovation projects. The common thread across all of these presentations and stories was the same: it took serious, cross-functional collaboration to drive innovation in large, established companies. Innovation can’t be the responsibility of a single person or group; in a company, if you want to see results and make an impact, you’ll need to engage a fully collaborative effort.
- Collaboration drives benefits for both start-ups and big businesses.
At the conference, there was an interesting mix of companies partnering with external start-ups, versus those nurturing start-up incubators. In both cases, the larger corporations recognized the advantages start-ups have when it comes to innovation. As I previously noted, it takes a lot of effort to drive innovation through a giant corporation. Start-ups are nimble, flexible and scrappy. Companies at the forefront of innovation have spotted their own weaknesses and are reaping the benefits of working with their more agile counterparts. At the same time, these collaborations present start-ups with access to capital, skills, and connections they wouldn’t otherwise have.
Innovation is often portrayed as a black box; a basement department where companies lock their best talent to squirrel away and create future breakthrough products. Innovation techniques are lined in secrecy and competition—especially among firms who are battling shrinking margins and market share. The presentations, culture, and overarching message of collaboration at FEI effectively takes a hacksaw to that perception, cutting the whole thing wide open. The “secret in the basement or backroom” approach to innovation only holds us back. What does work—and what moves us all, as an industry, further—is fostering an environment where companies and individuals can come together, share their ideas and struggles, and build upon what others are doing.