How to Build Innovative, Collaborative Organizations

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By Mike DuBose and Blake DuBose

In our previous column, we discussed how leaders can stifle innovation, collaboration, and teamwork within their organizations. They make mistakes by promoting bureaucracy, avoiding conflict, discouraging debate, and adhering rigidly to rules. But what about their polar opposites—those leaders who spark innovation and inspire creativity amongst satisfied staff members who look forward to coming to work most days?

If asked to name an innovative organization, many would identify Apple, which has a reputation for repeatedly launching wildly successful, cutting-edge products. Indeed, Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs, is remembered as saying, “Be different!” In addition to envisioning creative, desirable products, innovation extends to crafting new ideas and identifying ways to improve organizational processes.

Our studies of innovative organizations have revealed that they’re the result of collaborative teamwork, with passionate professionals working in unison toward common goals. They combine diverse individuals with different backgrounds, experiences, and skills to reach greatness. Unlike many traditional organizations, where leaders pass their vision down from above, innovative companies nurture ideas at all levels to decide upon common goals. In fact, when we met Linda Hill, a professor at Harvard University School of Business, she told us that the role of the leader was to set the stage and let others perform.

Truly innovative, collaborative workplaces are rare. There’s a reason for that: creating such an environment is very difficult. As Hill reported in her book, Collaborative Genius, “A rich, diverse supply of ideas will only emerge if group members are willing and eager to contribute their thoughts. The more ideas, the better. Consequently, innovation requires a large investment of time, energy, and other resources, and leaders need patience and the willingness to learn and change course along the way.”

The process of becoming an innovative organization can also be messy and conflict-ridden. As Hill noted, “The diversity innovation thrives on, the conflict of ideas and options it requires, the patience it needs to test and learn from multiple approaches, and the courage it demands to hold options open until possibilities can be integrated in new and creative ways—all these things can make innovative problem solving feel awkward, stressful, and even unnatural.” Because there are so many different thoughts, ideas, and viewpoints at play, it is also often difficult to make progress in any one direction. Thus, smart leaders who wish to generate excitement and passion while fostering an environment where people are encouraged to think must also set reasonable limits for debate.

Based on our knowledge of Hill’s work and other research, we found that leaders of innovative, collaborative organizations often share similar attributes. They tend to:

  • Understand that innovation is voluntary and cannot be controlled, planned, rushed, or forced. People must want to innovate, and it’s the leader’s job to facilitate participation.
  • Place employees first and care for their staff.
  • Create forums where diverse individuals can interact.
  • Limit group sizes to foster discussions, debates, and the exchange of ideas.
  • Define people’s work broadly, but with some guidance so that they clearly know what is expected of them.
  • Allow employees time to experiment and pursue their passions and ideas.
  • Encourage individuals in different departments to collaborate.
  • Promote learning and professional development.
  • Build paths and bridges to innovation, even if it causes temporary conflict.
  • Encourage peer review and other feedback across the organization.
  • Listen to a wide variety of comments and suggestions with an open mind.
  • Encourage people to try new strategies and ideas.
  • Make their staff feel safe to express differing opinions or critique others’ suggestions. They see conflict as a necessary part of building something great.
  • Create a sense of urgency—but also maintain their patience—as ideas evolve.
  • Speak transparently about the condition of the organization.
  • Ask “Why do we exist? Who are we? What is our purpose? What is our vision? How will we get there?” Then, they create a clear plan for the future incorporating extensive staff input. As Hill reported in Collective Genius, “Whatever form it takes, purpose is the glue that integrates the work of one into the work of many.”
  • Construct an environment where they (and others) feel they are part of something larger than themselves.
  • Foster a culture focusing on “we,” not “I.”
  • Face the brutal facts. They trace problems and failures back to the root cause, bring them out into the open without blame, dissect them to determine the issues, and proactively identify solutions.
  • Mirror Jim Collins’ famous “Hedgehog Concept,” where employees work on very profitable activities that they know best and are passionate about.
  • Hire people who are smarter than them and who “think outside the box.”
  • Ensure that only competent people who fit the culture remain employed at their organization. They confront employee problems head-on and coach staff to improve. Those who don’t adjust are asked to leave.
  • Combine multiple ways of doing things into one great outcome.
  • Move fast when opportunities present themselves. As Jack Welch told us, “You need to be able to turn on a dime when threats and opportunities surface.”
  • Know when to allow debate and when to make decisions.
  • Take calculated risks based on data and evidence. They resist making decisions until facts are in and various options have been tested.
  • Ask questions more often than they give answers or directives—they are not “know-it-alls.”
  • Stay out of staff debates so that they don’t stifle discussion, but know when to intervene if necessary.
  • Recognize their weaknesses and admit they are imperfect. Learning, growing, and maturing as leaders are their top priorities.
  • Solicit feedback from employees to define their values and understand what’s important.
  • Promote input on what the company should be doing from staff on the “front lines,” echoing Google’s “bottom up” approach.
  • Respect and communicate with people at all levels of the organization. They  are often humble individuals and dislike being considered “the boss.”

The bottom line: It really takes a lot of “the right stuff” in leaders, as well as the best employees, to build great organizations as outlined in books like Jim Collins’ Good to Great and Linda Hill’s Collective Genius. But if you can get all of the pieces into place, you’ll build an organization that thrives on creativity, ingenuity, and passion, with happy, engaged, employees and smiling, satisfied customers. When you build this environment, profits and success often follow!

About the Authors: Our corporate and personal purpose is to “create opportunities to improve lives” by sharing our knowledge, research, experiences, successes, and mistakes. You can e-mail us at

Mike DuBose, a University of South Carolina graduate, is the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. He has been in business since 1981 and is the owner of Research Associates, The Evaluation Group, DuBose Fitness Center, and Columbia Conference Center. Visit his nonprofit website for a free copy of his book and additional business, travel, health, and personal published articles.

Blake DuBose graduated from Newberry College’s Schools of Business and Psychology and is president of DuBose Web Group (

Katie Beck serves as Director of Communications for the DuBose family of companies. She graduated from the USC School of Journalism and Honors College.