“Collaborative culture of innovation:” Pump the brakes on this term

Collaborative culture

As far as Buzzword Bingo goes, I’ve recently heard the term “collaborative culture” or “collaborative culture of innovation” to describe the future of work in a few contexts. I think we need to retire this way of approaching the idea. As I’m moving today and stressed out, I’ll keep this relatively brief.

Problem No. 1 with “collaborative culture” discussions

People don’t actually want to collaborate at work. (More on this in a second.)

Problem No. 2 on “collaborative culture” of innovation

We actually seem to get this a little twisted. It seems like we want to believe that we all live in an innovative, entrepreneurial time. Makes sense, as tech is evolving faster than ever. But inside companies, we’re getting more and more bureaucratic. And you know what? That makes perfect sense, because it’s impossible for everyone on a team to be innovative. Someone needs to code the reports, and someone needs to make the trains run. Otherwise the team ain’t going to accomplish much either.

Problem No. 3 is the true elephant in the room

That would be incentive structures. In a standard hierarchy, these flow up and never flow back down. So here’s what happens: you work on 10 projects across a year. Each one is successful because you’re a baller. Well, on maybe 5 of those 10 will anyone get promoted (probably less), and if you just had one, you ain’t gonna get another for a while. So after a while the ecosystem is:

OK, and then a simple fourth problem.

Problem No. 4: The phrase means nothing to most workers

We still hire predominantly for job role, so people think of themselves as a “a marketing guy” or “an engineer” or whatever. “I’m an analytics guy, you know?” As a result, many people contextualize their work around what they do. “I do SQL” or “I make sure our time-to-hire is kept within this frame.” When people define along narrow job specs (common at the individual level), buzzwords become even less meaningless. If you know your job is “Set of Responsibilities No. 1” and some guy meows at you about a “collaborative culture of innovation,” your brain needs to stretch to apply “your responsibilities” to “that verbal vomit.” Brains can only stretch so much at work.


Now we can start getting to solutions.

How do we fix all this?

  • Start: Remove buzzwords and be more direct. Instead of “collaborative culture of innovation,” it’s more like “Dan, I want you on this team for six weeks. Ultimately I want to see this type of prototype based on user research, and if it goes well, half the team or more will be promoted straight away.” Obviously very few execs would say that, but it would be better than Buzzword Village we have now.
  • Then: Figure out your incentive structures (how many bonuses/promotions can you offer in a year?) and job roles (what do you really need to drive your business forward?) better than you do now.
  • Also then: stop listening to “thought leadership,” as by now it’s making the problems with communication worse.
  • And still then: Take a hard look at how truly “innovative” you are and, again, where you need job roles the most. Many companies assume “data” or “tech” and that’s probably true, but sometimes you need three good train-runners in a key department and that makes up for a choked sea of “data scientists.”
  • Finally: Actually be nice to human beings (don’t treat them as replaceable) and promote managers with social skills and intelligence. All these things make teams better to be on and foster a legitimate collaborative culture, instead of a force-fed on.

What else would you like to add on the supposed collaborative culture of innovation we all need?


Ted Bauer

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