Collaborative innovation within the water sector is currently high on the agenda, thanks to the Ofwat Innovation Fund. A team from the University of Sheffield has distilled its work on how best to build partnering relationships that lead to viable innovations into a new downloadable guide for the sector.

Prof Tony Conway

With water utilities, Ofwat and supply chain businesses all stressing the need for innovation to tackle the huge challenges facing the sector, a new, step-by-step industry guide has identified how effective collaborative can be fully integrated into successful innovation projects throughout the water industry.

The guide – Collaborative Innovation in the Water Industry: How to make it happen – is published by TWENTY65 , the £3.9 million water research programme funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and comprising of a consortium of six universities with the University of Sheffield as lead university.

It’s the result of comprehensive research and in-depth interviews with a wide range of stakeholders to identify the key factors most likely to deliver collaborative innovation success, with the recommendations organised in a logical sequence and format aligned to the stages of a typical water industry project.

Dr Kamal Birdi

The guide has been conceived and designed as a practical and easy to use tool, with repeatable processes and opportunities for reflection and lesson learning. It includes a checklist for project leaders, managers and teams to assess their current level of collaborative innovation capability, and to signpost areas for improvement.  The guide’s authors are Professor Tony Conway and Dr Kamal Birdi from The University of Sheffield.

Practical tools to maximise value
“Only through active and committed collaboration, at scale and embracing all water industry stakeholders, will we fast track the innovative solutions and new ways of working that society urgently needs,” explains Professor Conway.

“In the UK, the industry itself, its regulators and stakeholders are united in their support for innovation through collaboration. The vision of Water Innovation 2050, an alliance of 19 UK water utilities, is to ‘create open collaboration opportunities across the water sector and beyond to drive transformational change through innovation’. And a key driver of Ofwat’s £200 million Innovation Fund is the pressing need to turbocharge innovation through effective collaboration.

“This industry guide is designed to help equip project leaders and teams with the practical tools they need to enable collaborative innovation to happen at project level, and to maximise the value it can deliver for the project itself, the sector and wider society as a whole too.”

Dr Kamal Birdi is a senior lecturer in occupational psychology at the University of Sheffield Management School. “While there are many individual examples of effective collaborative innovation in the UK water sector, evidence of how and why those examples were successful can be hard to find,” says Dr Birdi.

“We wanted to find out what the essential actions we need to take are, to ensure that projects have collaborative innovation baked in at every stage, from initiation to implementation. We conducted a number of research studies, including a systematic literature review and interviews with many water sector stakeholders, to identify major barriers and facilitators of collaborative cross-organisational innovation initiatives in the UK water industry.”

The research findings identified six core stages of the collaborative innovation project process. Within the six stages, there are 14 collaborative innovation themes covering 44 individual factors that contribute to great collaboration innovation. These six stages comprise:

Project Stage 1: Defining the innovation project A pre-requisite for collaborative innovation is for all partners to have a shared and clear understanding of the problem to be solved or the opportunity to be pursued, why it is important, and how it links to organisational strategy and regulatory drivers. A clear and strong vision for the innovation project creates clarity, providing a sense of direction and a destination, and this should be created with the active participation of all the team.

Project Stage 2: Building the project team The right people need to be involved in the collaboration, including effective leadership and teams that are competent, creative, motivated, diverse and capable of enacting their decisions.  Roles and responsibilities of all parties must be clear, and benefits of the innovation for all involved understood.

Project Stage 3: Establishing a collaborative environment The cultural dynamics of the collaboration should ensure there is trust between members and that participants feel safe to share their thoughts and ideas. Collaborative and creative capability may need to be enhanced through external facilitators or training, while a free flow of clear, concise, timely and accessible communication between project team members is essential.

Project Stage 4: Managing activity Moving forward on an organised, collaborative basis is key for the project to stay on track. Here the value of effective project planning and reviews, strategies for gaining and managing financial investment and having flexible business processes are highlighted.

Project Stage 5: Realising benefits Many potentially good innovative solutions fail to turn into reality. Implementation of innovation can be aided by ensuring there is effective collaborative change management capability and that, critically, operational end-users are fully engaged.

Project Stage 6: Reflection and learning capabilities  As projects close, valuable insights can be gained by reviewing what went well, and what could have been better. Lessons learned can improve collaborative innovation capability and be applied to subsequent projects.

Common language for collaboration
“In creating this guide, we were acutely aware that circumstances surrounding innovation projects can vary considerably,” explain Professor Conway and Dr Birdi. “For example, innovation can involve a small or large number of organisations, engage with technology at lower or higher readiness levels, extend from hard technology to new working practices or be characterised by a lower or higher risk profile. The most relevant success factors for a particular project will depend on these individual circumstances.

“Accordingly, the list of success factors in this guide is not a straitjacket where every factor needs to have been considered. Instead, the key is to focus on the most relevant factors, given the unique circumstances of each individual project.”

“The factors we have identified will enable productive collaboration from the outset and create a unified culture which allows real innovation to thrive,” conclude the authors. “By following this practical guide, the sector can create a common language for collaborative innovation, anchoring a shared approach which can accelerate innovation, deliver value and create impact.”

To access a copy of Collaborative Innovation in the Water Industry: How to make it happen, by Professor Tony Conway and Dr Kamal Birdi, please download from this link.

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