Wicked-Problem Solvers25 May, 2016 / Articles
Companies have long cooperated within their ecosystems, working with suppliers, partners, customers, and even competitors. But as the premium on innovating grows, especially for wicked problems—those with incomplete, contradictory, or changing requirements—more organizations are tapping the capabilities of new and far-flung partners. That such cross-industry collaborations can generate radical innovations is clear. How to build and run them is another matter.
The challenge arises from the broad mix of expertise common on cross-industry teams. Participants often live in different intellectual worlds and have distinct technical languages. The gulfs between behavioral norms and values across industries and professions can be even wider. Within an industry, for example, people commonly share assumptions about the mission, how people at different levels should interact, the quality needed at various project stages, and so on. These assumptions shape behavior in subtle ways—and deviations, by definition, feel off. Thus when cross-industry teams come together, they often suffer from culture clash. A digital start-up in Germany and a large health care provider in the United States will have very different cultures—but if the companies are going to innovate together, they’ll need to get on the same page.
The parable of the learned blind men encountering an elephant captures the essence of the cross-industry challenge. Each man reaches a different conclusion about the elephant on the basis of his observation of a single part of it. The problem, as poet John Godfrey Saxe explained, is that “each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong!” In the same way, people on cross-industry teams frequently spiral into perplexed and emotionally charged disagreement, unable to see value beyond their limited field of view. The role of leaders is to enable diverse team members to grasp one another’s perspectives and productively share their insights.
To understand why some leaders achieve this—and why some don’t—my colleagues and I conducted research on more than a dozen cross-industry innovation projects, among them the creation of a new city, a mango supply-chain transformation, and the design and construction of two leading-edge buildings. Some projects were extraordinarily successful; others weren’t.
One of the notable successes was the Lake Nona Medical City project. Launched in 1999, it had a compelling vision: transform 7,000 undeveloped acres in central Florida into a thriving sustainable city focused on health care innovation. The city would encompass a 650-acre R&D campus with LEED-certified research buildings as an economic anchor, a brand-new medical school, and a new VA hospital. It would also feature energy-efficient homes, LED streetlights, shops, restaurants, and more in the surrounding community. Scientists, physicians, businesspeople, and technologists would converge on Lake Nona to take and create new jobs, live in state-of-the-art homes, and pursue innovation in everything from basic science to care delivery.
The project, developed by Tavistock Group, an international private investment firm, was highly ambitious. To help meet its aggressive timetable—about a decade—Tavistock created an autonomous organization called Lake Nona Institute to manage the technical and interpersonal challenges that the collaboration of planners, architects, real estate developers, education and government leaders, health care institutions, and corporate partners would entail. Today, Lake Nona is up and running, with hundreds of homes, a growing population, and a thriving R&D hub—itself a center of cross-industry teaming among anchor institutions. Ten projects are under way this year.
How did Lake Nona Institute do it? Like all the successful projects we studied, the initiative was guided by four key practices: fostering an adaptable vision, enabling psychological safety, facilitating the sharing of expertise, and promoting execution-as-learning. These broad practices will be familiar to any student of teams, but their application in cross-industry settings presents unique challenges and solutions, as we shall see.
Though the practices are presented here in sequence, in reality they are not isolated activities that are executed and then completed. Rather, they evolve as leaders cycle through them, continually optimizing each, using experience from one to inform another. For example, learning from project execution often leads to modification of the starting vision. Let’s look at each practice in turn.