Conditions for Successful Processes of Collaborative Innovation

The notion of collaborative innovation aims to capture the ability of multiactor collaboration to spur innovation. However, it is often difficult to bring together the relevant and affected actors that are needed to solve complex problems. It is equally difficult to ensure their collaboration, and even if they do collaborate, there is no guarantee that collaboration will lead to innovation. Two factors may help in fostering successful processes of collaborative innovation: (1) institutional design of proper arenas in terms of networks, partnerships and compacts that allow interdependent actors to exchange resources while respecting their operational autonomy; and (2) the exercise of public leadership and management that encourage collaboration and spur innovation.

Let us first consider the role of institutional design. Institutional design theory shows how the modeling of institutional arenas for multi-actor collaboration, such as public hearings and consultations, deliberative forums, mini-publics, public-private partnerships and governance networks, influences the motivation of public and private actors to participate, the quality of their deliberation, the policy outcomes that are generated and the ability to hold decision-makers to account for the outcomes (Hysing and Lundberg 2015; Hendriks 2016). Institutional design theory is an integral part of democratic theory and its search for democratic innovation (Smith 2009; Fung 2003, 2007), but there is also an interesting new ‘design thinking’ that provides important insight into how institutional designs can accommodate co-created policy innovation (Bason 2010; Ansell and Torfing 2014). Design of collaborative arenas is also a key focus point in theories of integrative public leadership (Crosby and Bryson 2010). These theories claim that the success of boundary-spanning collaboration in solving complex problems depends on the creation of procedures that ensure an early agreement on the nature of the problem, help to overcome power imbalances and enable a joint tracking of inputs, outputs and outcomes. Analysis of the institutional design of collaborative arenas typically focuses on the basic questions of who participates, where, how and when and aims to explore how the remit, or other official documents, seeks to define and frame the task, determine the leverage of the collaborative arena, and set up procedures for ensuring accountability.

When it comes to public leadership and management, we propose that the drivers of collaborative innovation can be enhanced and the barriers partially overcome if public leaders and managers assume the role of ‘conveners,’ ‘facilitators’ and ‘catalysts’ (Straus 2002; Crosby and Bryson 2010; Morse 2010; Page 2010; Ansell and Gash 2012).

The role of the convener is to bring together the relevant actors and spur interaction and the exchange of information, views and ideas. Hence, the convener must:

  • • Select the team by identifying actors with relevant innovation assets and incite and motivate them to participate in the innovation process
  • • Clarify the role of the different actors and draw up a process map that delineates who participates when and how in the different phases of the innovation process
  • • Encourage interaction and exchange between the participating actors by stimulating the recognition of their mutual dependence on each other’s resources
  • • Secure political support for the search for innovative solutions and protect the integrity of the collaborative
  • • Give direction to the joint search for innovative solutions and align the goals and expectations of the actors.

The role of the facilitator is to get the actors to collaborate by constructively managing their differences and engaging in processes of mutual learning that bring them beyond the least common denominator. Hence, the facilitator must:

  • • Lower the transaction costs of collaborating by arranging good and effective meetings, ensuring smooth communication and selectively activating those actors who are not contributing as much as they could
  • • Enhance and sustain trust between the actors by creating venues for informal social interaction, encouraging the development of common rules and procedures for interaction and triggering a virtuous cycle of trust-creation through a unilateral display of trust in the other actors
  • • Develop a common frame of understanding by creating a common knowledge base through knowledge exchange and joint fact-finding missions and developing a common language based on jointly accepted definitions of key terms and ideas
  • • Resolve or mediate conflicts so that they become constructive rather than destructive and ensure that irresolvable conflicts are depersonalized and conceived as joint puzzles rather than road blocks
  • • Remove obstacles to collaboration by securing support from the executive leaders of the participating organizations and negotiating how costs and gains of innovative solutions are distributed among the actors.

The role of the catalyst is to create appropriate disturbances and stimulate the actors to think out of the box and develop and implement new and bold solutions. Thus, the catalyst must:

  • • Construct a sense of urgency either by invoking a ‘burning ship’ or demonstrating the presence of a ‘window of opportunity’
  • • Prevent tunnel vision by encouraging the actors to change their perspective, including new and different actors in the team, or bringing new and inspiring knowledge into play
  • • Create open and creative search processes by changing the venue and the way that the actors interact and collaborate
  • • Facilitate the management and negotiation of the risks associated with innovative solutions and coordinate the implementation process to enhance synergy and avoid overlap
  • • Ensure that the participating actors assume the role of ambassadors and use their strong and weak ties to disseminate knowledge about the innovative solution.

Since processes of collaborative innovation are complex and full of jumps and feedback loops, public leaders and managers must be capable of skillfully combing the their roles as conveners, facilitators and catalysts so as to ensure that the right kind of actors are brought together, encouraged to collaborate and jointly explore and implement innovative solutions. Some of the leadership tasks can be distributed to other actors, such as professional facilitators or private actors partaking in the collaborative innovation processes, but the overall responsibility for driving the processes of collaborative innovation to their conclusion and getting results lies with local government officials. The challenge that they are facing is enormous since, after three decades of New Public Management, most public leaders and managers are used to focusing on how their own organization and employees are delivering a preordained set of results rather than on how a plethora of public and private actors are aiming to create new and disruptive solutions (Torfing 2016).

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