The Mystery of Innovation

Mystery surrounds innovations. In the popular imagination we often think of innovation as creating marvel breakthroughs —new gizmos or gadgets that enrich our livesThese technologies may become patented and thereby proprietary to its inventorSociety will benefit, but through a closed-loop process, and cannot provide input into its development. 

 

This process is one form of innovation we call invention. Despite invention’s zeal, another equally important, and often-neglected side, of innovation is integration. Integration creates equally important outcomes, but instead of creating new gizmos or gadgets, it draws upon elements from existing ones, repackages them into a new product or service, and rolls them out to a targeted market.  

 

As Kate Warren recently wrote in her Devex article, integration has become increasingly important in recent years. Communication between career fields lags as they become more specialized. In large part, lack of communication occurs because specializations encourage the use of exclusive jargonSome fields have become so technical that, without several years of experience, little chance of understanding its drivers and challenges exists 

 

This is where integration enters the picture. According to Warren, “an integrator is someone who understands multiple specialties and how they impact each other and excels in fostering collaboration between various stakeholders who may not be accustomed to working together, like government, private sector and civil society.” Increasingly, society’s toughest challenges cross sectors and disciplines. Solutions demand an integrated approach, which actively involves diverse groups of stakeholders that must coordinate their efforts if their goal is to solve a shared issue. 

 

In fact from our own research, we’ve found that true innovation – big breakthroughs as opposed to incremental improvement – come almost exclusively from people working at the intersection of multiple disciplines. Big companies like 3M know this intimately and have systematized mixing disciplines within the company, actively encouraging employees from say optics to work with employees from say materials to come up with breakthrough applications that benefit both fields. The big opportunity we see in the world is to create these kinds of intersections between organizations and across sectors. 

 

Think of integrators as bridges, and let us offer an analogy to push the point further. Two neighboring cities, separated by a steep canyon, are the most advanced in the region. Anywheresville produces cars and Springfield builds roads. Residents in both cities speak the same language, but different dialects. One day, an integrator observes the situation and begins to build a bridge. He also happens to know some friends that understand both dialects of the language, and invites them to help coordinate between the cities.  

 

The argument for integration is similar to trade: together, everyone benefits. The world of integration offers is not a zero-sum game. By coordinating several already well-intentioned efforts together, integrators can help move the needle on tough problems. Keep in mind that integrators need not be experts in a given sector—they can learn about another sector in the process. These challenges can be internal or external. 

 

Above all, integrators must listen. Understanding key components of the problem, and how the various stakeholders play a role in solving that problem, is essential.  So here’s our challenge – and opportunity – for you. You can be the integrator. You don’t need permission. You can be the change by doing a few basic things: 

 

  1. Pick a problem. What’s a vexing challenge that’s standing in the way of your organization, community, or team achieving its mission? Don’t over-think it at this point, but pick a problem. 

  1. Invite collaborators. Look around in your community. If you’re a company, which NGOs work in the same community or problem-space? If you’re an NGO or government, which companies serve customers in your area or mission-space? Increasingly organizations on both sides have people who’s job it is to foster partnerships. See if you can find them on their websites. If not, don’t be afraid to show up at meetings where those people are also attending or speaking. 1Let them know you’re interested in tackling the problem and invite them to sit down and explore how you might tackle it together. 

  1. Get some help. We’ve come up with some free online tools you can use to help organize your invitations, convenings, and collaborations. Download them here. Or come to CollaborateUp Academy and learn side-by-side with other integrators how to tackle really tough problems. 

 

Keep in mind, the most important thing is to remain persistent and vigilant. You will experience setbacks, especially as groups not accustomed to working together find their way. But soon their efforts will become integrated, thanks to you, the integrator. You can integrate the change you want to see in the world. 

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