Opinion: Is autonomy or collaboration better for innovation?

Whether HR empowers the individual or provides structured opportunities for collaboration, care must be taken to foster innovation every step of the way

Organisations typically promote the importance of teamwork, and yet they reward individual results. It’s no wonder that employees can end up confused about where their loyalties should lie. The outcome can be an individualistic competitive environment that misses out on the most collaborative potential.
When it comes to innovation, it has been found that the innovative process is actually fueled by embracing these apparent contradictions. An environment that supports innovation is best be supported by encouraging both individual autonomy and group collaboration. Yet this can be a challenging balancing act.
Too much autonomy, on one hand, could threaten the potential for enriched collaborative outcomes, while too much of a focus on the group process might stifle individual creativity.
So how can HR executives ensure there is a balance between these contradictions for the most productive environment for innovation?
Empower the individual for ideation
Research has found that those who generate variety and are able to come up with a number of different ideas (such as corporate founders and entrepreneurs) are often highly individualistic. The ideation stage in the innovation process, in particular, requires individual initiative and creativity. Individualistic cultures have, in fact, been found to have higher rates of innovation and economic growth.
Ensuring the workplace environment supports autonomy and empowers the individual is therefore an important first step in creating an environment that supports innovation.
For the HR executive that might translate into ensuring there are private individual workspaces available for people to work at so they can focus on developing ideas. Or it might include providing enough time out for individuals so that they have the chance for their imagination to be stimulated and to start to incubate ideas.
Structure opportunities for collaboration
While the innovation process relies on original ideas from individuals, ideally these ideas and passions then need to be combined with the refining synthesis of a group approach.  The group context can provide a place for people to encourage and nurture these ideas, and to help provide feedback for filtering through to the best ideas and developing the best applications.
Collaborative ideation through well-structured brainstorming sessions can help to build on ideas that have emerged from autonomous individuals and extend them further.
Once the group is ready to move on from the ideation stage, different individuals in the group can then help to provide different perspectives to assess the ideas and ensure they can be effectively implemented. It should be possible to leverage the backgrounds and resources of the group to come up with superior solutions. It is therefore important that HR executives ensure diverse groups are brought together for the innovation process, and that there are clear ground rules for providing constructive practical feedback.
Be aware of the dangers of too much autonomy or collaboration
While the individual ideas that can emerge from a personal passion are valuable, giving too much autonomy can also lead to apathy and disengagement from the group. Autonomy can lead to competition as opposed to collaboration, which can undermine the potential for collaborative outcomes.
On the other side, although collaborative groups can produce higher levels of creativity, groups have also been found to lower accountability and individual motivation to perform at a high level.
It has been found that the most creative teams in an organisation are those who have individuals who have been allowed to develop creative ideas, but then also have the confidence to share and debate ideas openly in a supportive group context rather than competing for recognition and holding back ideas for themselves.
We saw this principle at work when we were once called in to assist with a cross-cultural stockbroker team based in Japan. The ‘team’ was actually made up of individualist mercenaries, most of whom had been brought to Japan as expats, and as a group they had become stuck in habitual ways of doing things individually rather than looking for collaborative innovative solutions.
With assistance, the group was able to come up with a simple but highly impactful innovation for their work environment: they decided to move their desks – which had been facing outwards and away from each other – to form one central table with a shared focus. They maintained their own individual spaces, but they also found ways to connect more constructively with each other.
Transition individuals to a collaborative mindset
So how do you help to move independent elements towards a unified collaborative outcome?
The simple adjustment with the stockbroker group encouraged them to openly discuss and challenge each other on ideas and to collaborate more effectively, along with significantly increasing their collaboration and engagement, and this outcomes led to them tripling their revenue as a team.
Studies on how to encourage diverse teams to work together more effectively like this have identified three key strategies. These strategies appear to help individuals and groups manage some of the autonomy vs collaboration paradoxes, as the stockbroker case study reveals:
1. Maintain a focus on the task

By helping them to recognise the importance of helping each other to reach a common unified goal by focusing on importance of the tasks that needed to be completed and the ways collaboration would help, rather than focusing on individual personalities, we were able to help individuals get beyond the individualistic mindset.
2. Value differences

By talking through the unique potentials of different individuals from different backgrounds (cultures, business backgrounds, experiences etc.), we were able to build more respect.
3. Reduce power distance

By addressing the issue of an apparent power distance between the expats and the local Japanese, we helped individuals to identify any the ways these could block collaborative behavior.
The challenge is to ensure there is an ongoing recognition of the importance of the autonomy of individuals, but also a respect for the need for collaboration. And that will never be easy!
Gaia and Andrew Grant, founders and Directors of Tirian International, are innovation culture consultants and facilitators, and Gaia is a post-graduate researcher and guest lecturer at Sydney University Business School. The Grants are top-ranking keynote speakers who work with a range of organisations (including Fortune 500 companies and NFPs). Together they have authored The Innovation Race: How to change a culture to change the game (Wiley August 2016) www.the-innovation-race.com along with a number of other books and resources.

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