Collaboration: A Powerful Catalyst for Innovation

image002As baseball legend “Babe” Ruth once said: “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.”

Collaboration is the ability to work well with others towards a common goal. Why does that matter? Because inclusion is critical to both organizations and individuals. For example: The average return on collaboration is four times the initial investment, according to some experts. Measured gains range from three to six times ROI

The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that better collaboration could increase productivity of key workers by up to 25% — translating to nearly $600 billion in value across commercial sectors alone.

“Simultaneous invention and incremental improvement are the way innovation works, even for radical inventions,” contends Mark A. Lemley, attorney, author of The Myth of the Sole Inventor and director of the Stanford University program in Law, Science & Technology.

Shedding Light on the Electric Bulb

According to an article in The Atlantic magazine, the universal belief that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb is….well…balderdash. Electric lighting existed well before the Wizard of Menlo Park “invented” it.

“Edison found a bamboo fiber that worked better as a filament in the light bulb developed by Sawyer and Man, [earlier inventors], who in turn built on lighting work done by others,” contends Lemley. In fact, when other inventors got wind of Edison’s claims, they sued him for patent infringement. Within a generation, a wide variety of better bulbs were swiftly being developed.

Little Yellow Stickies

The idea that collaboration is a powerful catalyst for innovation is also clearly evident in the invention of Post-it notes: a classic example of this.

Spencer Silver, a chemist at 3M, was attempting to develop a better adhesive. He found one, but there was no use for it…at least until he met Art Fry, who was trying to anchor a paper bookmark in his hymnbook. That encounter—and the subsequent collaboration—unleashed the power of Post-it notes. In 2012, sales of the product were estimated at $4.3 billion, and the company has announced its plans to keep the product relevant to young smart phone addicts.

A Boost from NASA

Technology transfer has been a mandate for NASA since 1958, when the agency was given the authority to patent inventions whose titles it holds. The term “spinoff” was invented to describe specific technologies developed through collaboration at NASA for its missions and then transferred for commercial use or some other beneficial application. To date, NASA has documented more than 1,500 spinoff success stories.

We can credit the U.S. space program with a plethora of transformative innovations, that fostered hosts of successful new businesses ventures back on planet Earth, including: satellite TV, the laptop, the Dust Buster, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, telemedicine, the joystick, 3D graphics and virtual reality, non-reflective displays, ear thermometers and satellite navigation…to name just a few.

How to Be More Collaborative

Increasing the collaborative spirit may be as complex as a multinational product launch or as simple as saying hello to a person from another department, industry or enterprise, even if it is smaller or less important than your own.

In our own firm, the answer to every problem, choice, or opportunity is known to someone or some other team in the firm. Collaborative leaders are the ones who find that person or persons with those solutions. When we collaborate with others, we can come up with solutions so novel that they actually exceed everyone’s expectations.

Collaboration attracts success and, ultimately, financial, intellectual and emotional rewards to all of us. It’s a place where unexpected and amazing things can happen.

Ken Makovsky is President of Makovsky and Trustee for the Institute for Public Relations. Follow him on Twitter at @3centsmak.

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