How creating a collaborative culture could benefit your startup

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ross-posted from the Oui Share on April 16, 2013.

Building a collaborative culture at your startup is a great way to enhance your innovation, efficiency, and overall chance of success, by encouraging information sharing and group creativity. But where do you start? And what is important to consider when creating open structures? Here are four important things you should keep in mind.

1. Build an innovation platform.

In order to succeed in becoming a collaborative organization, you cannot just think of yourself as a content provider. Instead, you must see yourself as a curator; someone who creates a context or a platform that allows other people to self-organize and create things that are valuable, for you, for them and maybe even for the world.

In the networked age, organizations can be much more than organizations. They can be platforms for value creation that encourage a large, diverse, capable network of contributors to build open and intelligent networks and communities to solve shared problems.

Collaboration is not just a way to optimize problem-solving; it can also help edge out competition. If people are going to hack your products anyway, then you may as well get ahead of the game. Make your products modular, re-configurable and editable. Supply the raw materials so that collaborators can add value to your product and make it easier to remix and share. The advantage is that you will always be able to count on a dynamic and fertile ecosystem for growth and innovation.

But- don’t expect a free ride. Your collaborators will not only expect shares in things they helped build, but they will also be more willing to contribute if you make it profitable for them to get involved.

2. Rethink the commons.

The paradox of today's age is this: to be strong, to have control, to ensure your security as an organization or society, you have to let go and open up. Organizations should abandon a fortress mentality.

Why? Because sharing is about attaining growth, innovation and profits. It is true that companies need to protect critical intellectual property (IP), but at the same time they can often grow more effectively by not hiding all of their IP. What might initially sound like a potential threat to profit can, in fact, be an opportunity for organizations to discover new grounds for creativity.

There are many ways for an organization to “let go”: it could mean

  • giving your employees more freedom and more flexibility to innovate and co-create with their peers.
  • tapping into your suppliers and partners for ideas and collaborating more closely on product design and manufacturing.
  • sharing at least some of your assets with the public to expand your reach or help attract a larger network of contributors. 
  • letting a loyal and engaged community of enthusiasts help grow your brand. 

In making the decision to outsource, organizations should consider strategy as well as cost: Does having direct ownership of your work confer any competitive advantage?

If so, keep that work in-house and make sure that those responsible for the work are freed from lower-value tasks that others could accomplish. But if there is a benefit, outsource that work and make it open for any external help. (See The Logic of Open Business Models).

Ultimately, to make sharing work, you’ll need to stay connected to the community so you can leverage new contributions as they come in, and also need to dedicate resources to filtering and aggregating contributions.

3. Create a culture of collaboration.

The hardest challenge for anyone who wants to transform their institution in the networked age is to deepen and broaden the culture of collaboration. To make this work for you, you have to be genuinely open to new ideas.

The first place to start with is your own workplace. Try to abandon old hierarchies and encourage people to speak freely with one another even if they are in different departments.

To turn your organization into a collaborative workplace, your leaders also must recognize that collaboration is essential for reaching common goals. They will have to set an example with their own behavior and sustain momentum by relentlessly communicating the need to collaborate and respect joint efforts.

4. Find and strengthen the vanguard.

Collaborative communities never get off the ground without a core group of leaders who establish the vision and community values and attract more people to the ecosystem.

This small group can profoundly influence on the type of community that evolves, especially since newcomers tend to model their behavior on what they have already observed. Communities that create things develop their own rules that govern issues such as communications, appropriations, and the form and manner of contribution.

Providing incentives certainly will help motivate the vanguard to be successful. Let them expand gradually and tackle collaboration as real work, not as a distraction.

Moreover, empower the group through its collective intelligence by following the principles layed down in the book “Wisdom of Crowds“, namely diversity of opinion, independence, decentralization, and aggregation.

Empowering Professional–Amateurs can also help; young minds with a preference for collaboration can help organizations innovate in how they recruit, compensate, develop, supervise talent, and build a brand.

Unfortunately, most organizations and institutions do a pretty poor job of engaging young people. Smart companies understand that tools and platforms such as Facebook and other social media are becoming the new operating system for their businesses. And these tools come naturally to the new generation, like the air they breathe.

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