Solving The World’s Biggest Problems Takes Ensembles, Not Soloists

Band together

Being a soloist is fun…you get to flex your skills and shine. But music isn’t made by soloists alone…and it’s not enough to be great at your instrument. To make it with a band and make a big, rich sound, you have to listen to others, and know when to mesh and harmonize and when to give others the freedom to shine. A great band beats a great soloist, pushing past the capabilities of one person.

Innovation is a team sport

The same holds true for innovation. We read about the greats: Jobs, Gates, Edison…but no one makes it on their own very far. Each and every great was backed by a band…and sometimes a band of equals. So how do we form “Innovation Bands”? What’s the glue for creative collaboration?

The Five Core Collaboration Skills

1. Yes, AND

If you know about “Not invented Here Syndrome”, The attitude of “Yes, And” can help avoid it. Sometimes collaborations are hard because we want to be right…but helping magnify, develop and deepen the ideas of others is  a core skill of successful collaborations. Instead of finding the holes, flaws and shortcomings of ideas, take a second to try out “Yes, And” and see if the idea has some legs after all.

2. Open vs. Close

Are we trying to start or finish? What’s our goal for the team, right now? If someone is trying to launch and someone else is trying to build a new launching pad, we’re not collaborating. It’s SO essential to close: to finish a project on time and on budget….but only after we’re all aligned on the project goals. A good OPEN helps make sure all the ideas are on the table and everyone is heard, and allows us to start aligning on how we want to CLOSE.

3. Keep it Visual

It’s easy to forget this one. If we just talk and never capture our conversation on the wall, it’s hard to know what happened at the end of a meeting. Assign someone to be the chief scribe…but make it everyone’s responsibility to write ideas down! As we say, a drawing is worth Thousands of words. So get better at that!

4. Needs over Solutions

Solutions are easy to get wrong….The aisles of Walmart and Best Buy  are littered with products that fall short. But needs are based on people and are never wrong, because they’re real. Focus on the needs you’re meeting, refine and distil them down. You might still launch a solution that fails to meet the need you defined…but if you define the need incorrectly, there’s little hope for success!

5. Testing over Talking

There comes a point (and it’s always earlier than people think) when it’s time to try out your ideas rather than  talk about them. There are many, many ways to make ideas more real…acting them out, making a video or a mocked Press Release. Check out our Experiment Category in the blog for some perspectives on how to prototype and when.


The Five Core Collaboration Values

One essential fact of collaboration is that we don’t have to have all the answers. In fact, stealing the answers isn’t stealing at all…it’s more like sharing. So the five core values of collaboration below, in the spirit of collaboration, are taken from the MDG Health Alliance. In the last seven years, a global collective was set up by Ray Chambers, the U.N. Special Envoy to the Secretary General for Health Finance and Malaria  which   focused on malaria. This group reduced the number of deaths per year from 900,000 to 400,000—and the goal of zero deaths is now within sight. The collaboration also birthed the MDG Health Alliance, which has helped form collaborations around programs focused on preventing mother-child transmission of AIDS, improving child and maternal health, and other initiatives.

The office defined a core set of values to unify and guide its activities. These values, as stated by the members of the MDG Health Alliance, include:

Use trust as a basis for change. 

Honesty and integrity drive our relationships, always.

Empower partners.

Collaboration is the most important way to achieve the scale and impact we seek. We minimize our “need to be right” and remain adaptable and flexible.

Focus on game-changing opportunities.

We only pursue levers for bold, catalytic change. We work toward measurable results with a sense of urgency.

Uphold purity of our purpose.

We remain independent and keep everyone’s right to a healthy life at the center of our work. We have empathy and compassion for those we serve.

Inspire and actively support one another

We treat each other with care, form strong bonds and find joy in the day to day.


These are big ideals…and there is some overlap between the MDG values and our collaboration skills…but big ideals are needed to solve big problems. Your next project might not be solving malaria, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to think big and shoot for the stars!


Many thanks to Jeff Walker, whose article inspired this one

Daniel Stillman

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