We all know that old black-and-white movie stereotype, the solitary mad professor hunched over his test tubes and complex equipment behind closed doors, where strange things inexplicably go bump in the night.  Mysterious and unpredictable, scientists and inventors were then allowed their eccentricities.  We expected them to be reclusive and to differ from the norm – unusually bright, but perhaps not terribly well equipped with interpersonal skills.

Nowadays, however, to be an innovator is in vogue.  The search term “innovation” yields 578 million finds on Google – almost as popular as the term “leadership” (796 million)!  Everyone, it seems, wants to be an innovator.  In a fast-moving competitive world, the ability to come up with new ideas, products and processes that result in market gain or cost reduction, is highly valued.

Enter the reality of  the 21st century innovator: often working in an organisational team (though possibly remotely), in well-lit state-of-the art facilities, he or she is connected to a diverse range of electronic data sources brimming with latest research findings from interactive global communities of respected peers.

This connectivity is not so new in academia.  But if you look closely at big industry, innovators are increasingly expected to be as connected and to reach out beyond the confines of their own laboratories and offices and get involved with innovators in other organisations.

But why is collaboration on the rise?

One factor is a knock-on effect from globalisation.  The strategic imperative of growth has pushed many organisations to extend their reach far beyond their initial shores, giving access to cheaper raw materials and/or labour, not to mention the benefits of more favourable tax regimes.  However, following a merger or acquisition, there is pressure to harvest value from synergies.  This inevitably involves the elimination of perceived duplication.  Restructuring can ensue, a consequence of which can be the thinning out of teams.  The internal talent pool is reduced, and with that a growing need to outsource for specialist expertise.

Add to this the sheer profusion of research data and speed of technological developments – it is more difficult to process all this with limited internal resources.  Which is why many organisations now see collaboration as a key strategy to help stay current and enhance their ability to get ahead of the innovation curve.

A brave new world

For many technologists and professionals with specialist expertise, collaboration can demand skills that are not their natural preference.  Perhaps the old stereotype had some truth in it – many (though certainly not all) innovators have a natural preference for introversion.  That is, they get their energy from within, and can be depleted by interaction with large groups of people.   Plus a high proportion are more task-focused than people-focused.  So it’s no surprise that technical competence in dealing with complex problems that require depth of concentration is the fuel that carried many to this level in their career.  A successful technologist or professional specialist could well have spent most of their career cloistered in their narrow field, and perhaps only ever have worked with a small, close team.  Now they might find they are being asked to seek out and collaborate with complete strangers.  Quite a push out of their comfort zone, for many.

So what are some of the top skills that will help the more introverted in this new world?  They include the ability to

  1. Be a hunter: network to find appropriate partners
  1. Build trust quickly – and maintain it
  1. Align agendas – while appreciating and being sensitive to differences

Each of these merits an article on its own, but a few brief highlights for now…

1.      Be a hunter – network to find appropriate partners

A complex landscape has emerged in the last decade.  It consists of potential collaboration partners, brokers and funders.  E.g. Innovate UK and its catapults, the Knowledge Transfer Partnership, LEPs, universities, are to name a few.  Some organisations have actually created a senior executive role dedicated to navigating and hunting in this landscape to find the right partners, and to harvest associated Government funding that might otherwise be difficult to locate.

Smaller firms, however, don’t have the luxury of dedicating a whole person, and may need their innovators to do some of that hunting themselves.  Introverts and extroverts probably need approaches that suit their natural preferences.  Natural extroverts will probably enjoy outreach to all and sundry, whereas someone more introverted can play to their strengths – researching, and then focusing where to expend their precious interactive energy.  The introvert is really good at building meaningful relationships that tend to be of greater depth with a smaller number than an extrovert.  So clever targeting is a smart thing for an introvert to do.   Identifying who to target can be made easier if they simply think to reach out to their possibly tight but trusted existing network.

2.      Build trust quickly – and maintain it

The Dowling Report names “Strong and trusting personal relationships” as the number one Key Success Factor in successful collaborations between industry and academia.  A senior technologist from a major multinational tells me he knows after 20 minutes in a room with a potential collaborator whether he can work with them or not.  In fact, Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy says that we form a view of someone’s trustworthiness within seconds.  It seems we unconsciously assess two factors – warmth and competence.  And interestingly it’s not their competence we prioritise – it’s their warmth.  In cavemen days, “it was more important to figure out if your fellow man was going to kill you and steal all your possessions than if he was competent enough to build a good fire”.  Technologists whose careers have been based on competence may need to rethink what they believe matters when trying to build trust with others.  This is one of the reasons I encourage participants of the Innovation Network to network with as much emphasis on the way they welcome someone, as on what they may say.

3.      Align agendas, while recognising differences

Unsurprisingly the second most crucial Key Success Factor for collaboration named in the Dowling report is “Shared vision goals and objectives, setting in place clear expectations”.   This requires clarity about one’s own purpose for collaboration and the outcomes one hopes to achieve, being able to communicate them well – and being a very good listener.  What are the goals and objectives of your partner?

Not all of the other party’s goals will be common to yours.  Building a strong foundation on what is common, is essential.  However, it can also pay dividends also to pay attention to any aspirations they may have that differ from yours. Acknowledging them and finding a way to accommodate them reasonably may make the difference between a one-off collaboration and a fruitful long-term one. Finding them out later can come as a bit of a shock – but need not have done so, had the conversation taken place early on.  So it pays to be curious and ask pretty direct questions from the outset – which one might have more license to do than one realises (why not play the eccentric card to one’s advantage 😉 ).

Wishing you friendly, focused and fruitful hunting.

Siobhan Soraghan

Director, Active insight