Collaborative Innovation

Wicked and unruly problems require the crafting of innovative solutions, but what is the best strategy for enhancing innovation? Roberts (2000) compares authoritative, competitive and collaborative strategies and concludes that collaboration is superior to competition and authority when it comes to creative problem solving. Authoritative strategies authorize a particular group of decision makers to define a problem on the basis of their formal position or expertise and urge them to come up with a matching solution; the experts might be wrong, however, because they fail to benefit from knowledge sharing and mutual learning with relevant and affected actors. This weakness of authoritative strategies is especially salient in relation to wicked and unruly problems that are fraught with cognitive and political uncertainties. Competitive strategies engage relevant stakeholders in a zero-sum game in which the winner takes all and eventually gets to define the problem and its solution. While the advantage of these strategies is that competition prompts the search for innovative solutions and challenges institutionalized powers, a lot of resources are nevertheless wasted on rivalry and conflicts and the exchange of ideas among competitors is prohibited by competition. By contrast, collaborative strategies permit the exchange of knowledge, competences and ideas between relevant and affected actors and thus facilitate mutual learning that helps improve the understanding of the problem and identify a range of feasible options (Roberts 2000; Weber and Khademian 2008). In fact, collaboration does not only facilitate knowledge sharing, problem definition and idea generation. It also enables the integration of ideas, the selection of the most promising ones, the assessment and sharing of risks and benefits, the reduction of implementation resistance through the construction of joint ownership, and the diffusion of innovative ideas through the recruitment of a large number of ambassadors (Sorensen and Torfing 2011; Hartley et al. 2013).

As such, it has been argued, collaboration is the only strategy in which it is not the presence of institutional and organizational boundaries that decides who will be involved in the production of innovation, but rather the possession of relevant innovation assets in terms of experience, creativity, financial means, courage, implementation capacity, and so on (Bommert 2010). Hence, collaboration is not only a favorable strategy for dealing with wicked and unruly problems, but also provides a promising method for developing and implementing innovative solutions.

Collaboration does not necessarily involve time-consuming attempts to forge unanimous agreement. In fact, a total consensus that eliminates all forms of dissent is often predicated on the actors agreeing on the least common denominator, which seldom leads to an innovative solution. Rather, collaboration should be defined as a process through which multiple actors aim to establish a common ground for solving multiparty problems through the constructive management of difference (Gray 1989). Hence, we collaborate with other actors because they have resources, knowledge and ideas that are different from our own, and rather than seeking to eliminate these differences, collaboration aims to manage and exploit them in ways that facilitate the development of innovative solutions to common problems.

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