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Without Collaboration, Innovation Is Just An Idea That Never Comes To Fruition

mayo 24, 2021
President and CEO of Vital Strategies, a global public health organization that designs solutions to pressing health problems.

Across civil society and the private sector, we experience no shortage of great ideas. But how do we translate these innovations into reality? Regardless of the field in which you operate, collaboration is one critical requirement.


I cannot think of an innovation that — without collaboration — had a major impact on the world. What is the discovery of electricity, for example, without the investment and labor involved to bring light to every household? The proliferation of rail travel across the continental United States was a great leap forward for transportation in the 19th century. Yet its efficacy was curtailed by varying widths of track — a policy that required cargo to be reloaded onto new train cars at multiple junctures. It was not until railroad gauges were standardized and companies collaborated upon mechanisms for mutual access and benefit that railroad transport gained speed and efficiency.

Any aha moment — that brilliant discovery — is really just the first step. After that, you need to do the legwork or else you end up with a great idea that never comes to fruition.


Take, for example, the rapidly developed Covid-19 vaccines — our gateway to the other side of this pandemic. At Vital Strategies, we applaud the speed with which these vaccines were developed, but as we say in public health, it’s not vaccines that save lives — it’s vaccinations. Even a perfect vaccine cannot save lives unless it reaches the people who need it, and that takes collaboration among government officials, the private sector, community groups and the public.

Solutions — no matter how brilliant — can take us only so far.

During the pandemic, leaders across sectors have been pushed to explore new and creative ways to carry out their missions. Before an organization can effectively collaborate with others, collaboration must be nurtured internally. Here are some steps you can take to help your organization become a place that fosters effective collaboration.

Can staff see the bigger picture?

There is always the risk, especially in large organizations, that staff will lose sight of how their individual efforts contribute to the greater goals of the organization. This can lead to a silo effect, with employees feeling like proverbial cogs within the greater machine. I prefer to use a different analogy: Each staff member should be like a bricklayer who, when asked what they do for a living, doesn’t say “I lay bricks” but responds, “I build cities.”


We are all bricklayers. If your organization supports financial resources for women, the staff should know they are building small businesses. If the goal is to fight hunger in schools, they are working together to build healthier generations. This kind of collaborative spirit is more challenging to nurture when we are all working remotely, but senior staff need to keep this vision in sight while finding ways to break down those silos and allow employees to see the broader reach of their individual contributions.

Does everyone in the organization feel like they have a voice?

Are there people in your organization who are always speaking up, as well as those who remain silent? To foster a more inclusive environment where everyone feels like they are part of the bigger picture, it is important to break those patterns. You can do that by providing different opportunities for staff to contribute. Not everyone is comfortable chiming in during a large Zoom meeting, for example, but smaller groups may lead to more participation. Some people may prefer to communicate their views in writing. Senior staff can help by asking the quieter employees how they prefer to convey their ideas. Maybe they’d like to weigh in on a particular project or chair a meeting.

Are we only skimming the surface of our pool of ideas?

“Business as usual” is the enemy of collaboration. We know that each new problem may require an outside-the-box solution. But if the same people within your organization are the architects of those solutions, you are limiting potential. Make it easy for other people, not just senior staff, to contribute ideas. Set up a process through which ideas can be pitched — a virtual ideas jar, if you will — and be sure the suggestions are reviewed thoughtfully and people receive credit for their ideas. It takes more effort to create an environment where everyone feels encouraged to contribute, but ultimately, it’s a win-win. Staff feel more connected to the greater goal of the organization, and leaders gain access to a broader pool of ideas.

Can your staff see the bigger picture? Do they have a voice? Are they invested in finding solutions? Keeping these three questions in mind will help nonprofit leaders create an environment that fosters both creative innovation as well as the collaboration needed to make that next great idea a reality.

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