A company culture in which employees freely work together, exchange ideas, and experiment to refine and optimise those ideas is as rare as it is valuable. In order to innovate effectively, businesses need to harness the creativity and problem solving skills of the employees. Unfortunately, most businesses tacitly suppress collaboration and innovation among their coworkers. This makes it much more difficult and costly to develop ideas, to compete with other businesses, and to grow.

In order to change this, it’s important to understand what drives collaborative innovation, and how to motivate employees to share ideas and to develop innovative solutions to problems. Fundamentally, this means providing employees with common interests to pursue, and building trust between employees, and between employees and business leaders.

Collaboration is essential to innovation

While popular media might lead us to think otherwise, innovative solutions today are rarely the work of any one individual. Major innovative entrepreneurs like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs became world-famous in part because of their deep technical knowledge and ability to innovate and develop their own products. Most businesses don’t work this way, though. Moreover, most industries have already been around long enough to develop effective best practices, and have little to gain from any individual’s expertise. At this point, they need complex solutions to complex problems.

Business owners who attempt to make themselves the driving force behind innovation in such an industry will normally find themselves frustrated, and may even keep valuable ideas of employees from being heard. This is problematic, because innovatively disrupting an industry usually requires introducing new perspectives and outside knowledge to challenge established norms. That means aggregating the diverse experience, knowledge, and perspectives of many different employees to come up with and refine new ideas.

Mistrust prevents collaboration

Employees traditionally see their coworkers as rivals, and employers often encourage this view. Competitiveness is an excellent motivator when it comes to individual performance, but it can come at the expense of innovation. That’s because competitiveness usually also has an unintended side effect.

Employees who are competing directly for limited rewards, such as bonuses or promotions, can’t afford to be helpful to their coworkers. Sharing an idea, or giving someone else feedback on theirs, means risking their own success. As a result, employees are forced to attempt to perform as individuals, instead of pooling their resources and expertise to contribute to a greater collaborative effort.

Building trust to improve collaboration

In order for employees to collaborate effectively, they first need to trust one another and their employer. This means reducing their incentives to compete against one another individually, recognising and rewarding their contributions as a group, and ensuring that their innovative efforts are taken seriously by their leaders.

Develop a broader reward structure

While it doesn’t make sense to promote people in groups, everyone who contributes to an idea can be recognised or monetarily rewarded for it. For example, a business might challenge teams of employees to come up with improvements or innovative solutions to a problem. If a team’s solution is implemented, the entire team receives a bonus, rather than any one person. This preserves the motivating power of competition, while also strongly encouraging employees to work together to come up with an ideal solution.

Ensure that new ideas receive a fair hearing

Many businesses, particularly startups, rely on a few initial key innovations made by the business’ leaders. While innovative leadership is helpful, it’s important not to place too much value on ideas simply because of where they come from. In such an environment, employees who see problems may feel that their feedback is unwelcome, or that saying something could even be harmful to their career.

To head this off, leaders need to actively solicit feedback, original ideas, and critical observations of their existing procedures and products. Additionally, people and teams who discover inefficiencies or help to resolve them should be rewarded and recognised for their efforts. This helps to communicate priorities to employees. Specifically, it ensures that honesty, collaboration, and innovation are prioritised over more mundane office politics.

Innovative company cultures are built on a foundation of trust. Trust, however, is built on common interests and mutual understanding. By providing employees with common interests, business leaders can encourage employees to begin collaborating, and to build that all-important trust. It’s only at this point that business leaders and employees are able to freely share ideas, to provide honest and constructive feedback, and to finally realise their combined innovative potential.