All innovation comes from an idea that started with a problem and ended with a solution. It seems simple, right?
There’s just a small — though very important — differentiator: Everyone can think of problems, but not everyone has the same ability to come up with solutions. That is why collaboration is such a valuable tool. One person might see the problem clearly, but it might take the perspective of another to see the solution clearly.
If your goal is to have your business find the answers for the problems and pain points of your customers, then you need to set your company up to successfully collaborate with the best and brightest in your niche. By following these steps, I’ve found collaboration and innovation can become much easier:
Understand your starting point.
Over time, the knowledge each company brings to its specific niche becomes even more specialized. This is because you get better at what you do and can solve the issues that come up for those specific pain points.
However, to find a solution to a customer’s problem, your knowledge might be too specialized to see a valuable solution. It is vital that you have an understanding of what you know as a company — and what you do not know. That way, you see where the gaps are that you need to fill in.
Many leaders today reach out to startups or collaborate with individuals from completely different industries in order to identify these gaps. My personal favorite (and what I’ve found is one of the most powerful ways to learn) is working with children. What if you asked your employees’ kids to test your product in order to challenge your processes and assess your operations? It can be insightful and a true eye-opener to start asking your next-generation customers (as well as your next-generation talents) for their perspective.
Combine teams to improve the knowledge base.
To make sure your company can come up with as many innovative solutions as possible, make sure your knowledge base is vast. This can be done by mixing employees from different departments and having them work as a combined team on selected company challenges. This way, they can bring in their specific skills and expertise, as well as learn from and train their new team members — an excellent and fast way to build and share knowledge inside your organization.
As previously mentioned, it can be very insightful to conduct “experts workshops” with external experts such as young entrepreneurs, influencers, representatives from suppliers, artists, etc. to get their perspectives on the challenge the team is facing. For extra credit, make sure these teams have access to some guidance or a toolbox of creative and innovate techniques so they get support when trying to come up with innovative solutions.
If your teams are unable to work together at first, provide some team-building exercises to help them learn how to rely on one another and value others’ opinions. The more closely each team works together, the sooner their collaboration can result in innovative thinking. Again, for extra credit, make sure the office space is set up in a way that fosters and supports collaboration and creative brainstorming sessions (yes, innovation is often more of a “people” thing than a “technology” thing).
Encourage people to collaborate on all aspects of a business.
While many believe they already understand how to collaborate, your company might need your teams to work together differently than they are used to. For example, by simply taking two ideas from different use cases or product lines and putting them together, you might get a completely new solution, or maybe even a new business model. However, if you take two known ideas and your teams work together to add in one whole new part, it might be just different enough from what has been tried in the past to create a unique, new and innovative solution.
It’s important that your people understand the power of trying something unique in order to come up with a solution your clients will love. Nevertheless, doing minor adjustments to an existing way of doing it can also sometimes be just enough of what’s needed. The bottom line is that as long as your teams remain open and are willing to give different perspectives and collaboration a try, they are on a good track.
Many companies have taught the value of collaboration to their employees by simply encouraging them to keep striving for new answers. They show through the organization’s culture that they value communication and an agile leadership style in all avenues of how they do business. These companies give rewards to those who continually step up and provide more than what is expected of them. They are set up to listen to new ideas regularly, and they truly understand the concept of “fail fast and fail forward.”
If you want your company to have successful, innovative ideas and collaborative people, then you need to encourage collaboration at every level of the company. Even brand-new employees should be encouraged to be a part of this practice, as you never know where the next breakthrough will come from.
The good news is that your company has all of the innovation potential. You simply need to ensure that you are set up to collaborate with the best talents. Make yourself aware of your shortcomings, and fill in those gaps with people from the outside who can elevate your company. If you are not sure where to begin or what shortcomings you might have, reach out to sparring partners who can show you how to bring your company up to the next level of innovation and collaboration. After all, fast innovation capabilities will turn more and more into a key currency in the digital economy.
This article appeared in its original version on forbes.com late 2019.