Could This Be the Greatest Era for Innovation? HR Strategies for Collaboration in the New Organization

Overview: This is the third article in a series of six on HR for tomorrow’s corporations. This article discusses why collaboration both internally and externally is the cornerstone of a dynamic and creative workforce and how digital tools can complement a transformation.



if you’re not making room for the unexpected meeting of minds, you could be missing out on the next big breakthrough.
— Beth Comstock, Vice Chair of GE

A crossover is a giant leap in progress spawned by the merging of one body of knowledge with another, with dynamic effect. For example, airport sushi bars borrowed technology from baggage carousel systems and display tantalizing dishes on a moving conveyor belt. BMW’s iDrive system uses gaming controller design in its cars so that drivers will keep their eyes on the road. Crossovers are an innovator’s dream.

Back in 2004, Martin Ruef, a professor at Duke University, found that horizontal networks composed of diverse individuals were three times more likely to innovate than traditional vertical networks. That’s not such a challenging concept these days, but what is challenging is channeling the diversity dynamic so that crossovers can happen.

Communication Systems for Collaboration

It seems a contradiction in terms. We have entered the era of mobile dependency where people are rarely in the same physical place at the same time. But despite this isolation, technologies are bringing workers together digitally and in real-time, through cloud-based communication platforms.

For innovation to occur, the excitement around a concept must be persistent. Having to schedule a formal in-person meeting to discuss the latest research results can create a bottleneck, whereas a group chat on a unified communications platform can build additional momentum.

Cloud-based technologies, such as Cisco Spark, Slack, Microsoft Teams, or Facebook’s Workplace, encourage immediate cross-functional discussion and faster decision making. Otherwise, traditional hierarchical structures and silo mentality persist and hinder creativity.

Disruption and Demographics

It’s not just our physical locations and communication channels that have changed. The workforce has changed in terms of demographics and diversity.


The workforce is now represented by five generations:

  • Traditionalists, born before 1946

  • Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964;

  • Gen Xers, born between 1965 and 1976;

  • Millennials, born between 1977 and 1997, and

  • Gen 2020, born after 1997.

What’s more, those generations are all made up of individuals with unique cultural backgrounds.  

Diversity is the life blood of innovation. Everybody can learn something from someone, and multi-generational teams provide an opportunity for unique mentoring experiences. Reverse or reciprocal mentoring programs pair younger workers with seasoned executives to work on specific business objectives.

High Performing teams include members with a balance of skills … Diversity in knowledge, views, and perspectives, as well as in age, gender and race, can help teams be more creative and avoid groupthink.
— Haas and Mark Mortensen, The Secrets of Great Teamwork.

Designing Teams for Innovation Breakthrough

If diversity leads to innovation, then surely the more diverse the team the better? According to Lee Fleming’s article on cross-pollination in the Harvard Business Review, 17,000 patents were studied to compare the resulting financial value of innovations from cross-pollination versus a conventional, siloed approach. Fleming found that cross-pollination created a greater chance of a high-value breakthrough but more failures in the process – or less average innovation value overall. If a breakthrough did occur, however, Fleming found that the value of that breakthrough was likely to be much higher than if the traditional, siloed approach had been followed.

 Source: Lee, 2004.  Harvard Business Review

Source: Lee, 2004. Harvard Business Review

For example, in the diagram, to the right, each dot is an innovation. If the members of a team are not diversified (they are all engineers, by way of example), the average value of their output will be high but there won’t be much variation in the output or innovation. There won’t be a lot of failures, but there won’t be any breakthroughs, either. If the team members are diversified (a mix of engineers, designers, and marketers), however, the chances of a breakthrough are greater. But there will also be more failures.

Where the Traditionalist Meets the Hyper-connected

It’s not uncommon for a younger worker to manage an older worker in today’s work environment. But the key in any working relationship is for both parties to hear the other one out. Younger generations who are used to debating in the classroom can apply that same skill at work by encouraging similar open communication in-person, by text, or through another communication channel, like Slack. Only email is rapidly becoming an anathema to the younger generations.

Preferences for communication styles are crucial for collaboration and a team-centric culture. One ground rule that should be established by a project team is the channel of communication. If some members of the team lack proficiency in Google Hangouts or Dropbox, for example, they may already feel excluded and unable to contribute.

It’s important to realize that different generations may need more time to become skilled in using new communication technologies. A discussion early in a team’s creation should address who needs what to ensure a successful collaborative experience.

And this is broader than just communication styles. Workers with personal obligations, such as children or older parents to care for, may require greater flexibility when scheduling meetings.

What Makes Successful Collaboration?

There isn’t one factor that ensures team success, but here are a few to consider.

Trust. Judy Nelson, a member of Forbes Coaching Council, draws attention to the notion of trust. According to Nelson, “team members feel safe because they know and trust one another. Getting acquainted in a safe environment is essential to building effective teams.”

Emotional intelligence and empathy. In 2016, Google announced that emotional intelligence and communication were the secret combination for team innovation, and Google’s culture promotes empathy, listening, and “joining in.”

If you want to get something done, put a powerful person on your team. If you want to ruin the team, in order to get more done, put one or two more powerful people on the team. Productivity will decrease.
— John Boldoni, Forbes, 2017

Personality. Research shows that the real determinants as to how well a group can collaborate depend on psychological factors and personality. Personality affects the role a member has within the team, how that person interacts with the rest of the team, and whether a member’s values align with those of other team members.

Personality inventories, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the DiSC profile are based on psychology and can be useful in collaborative environments. They provide insights into individuals’ personalities and preferred communication and work styles.

A recent study by two academics at the University of California Berkeley Haas School of Business illustrates the influence of personality. The study found that when more than one powerful person is on a team, competition between the powerful leads to dysfunction. One solution to this problem is to jumpstart the project before dominant individuals get involved. That way, when they do provide input, they are building on a concept rather than jockeying for position at the starting line.

A study by Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina found that positive emotions like trust, curiosity, confidence, and inspiration broaden the mind and help us build psychological, social, and physical resources.

Psychological safety. Google found that the best teams shared thoughts and ideas without the fear of ridicule by creating “psychological safety.” When we feel safe, we find solutions more easily and become more creative.

Creating a non-threatening work environment is conducive to innovative thinking, and the Team Learning and Psychological Safety Survey can help you determine whether your work environment is intimidating or safe.

Maintaining the Pace of Innovation Change

At the heart of innovation is people’s ability to work together. They need the right tools, such as unified communication platforms and connected devices, and they need an environment that is non-threatening.

The digital era is one where boundaries are being crossed, communication and collaboration are real-time, machine learning is processing information at an unfathomable rate, and workforces are spanning wider age ranges with greater diversity. Considering these factors, there may never have been an era more conducive to innovation.

Up next in human resources, Talent Acquisition: Avoiding the Trickle-down Effect and Focusing on the Candidate Experience.