The many new challenges facing businesses today may seem daunting, but to someone somewhere they are becoming old hat, having already experienced the quickly changing world of work. That someone may be halfway around the globe, but that shouldn’t stop businesses from tapping their knowledge and insight into how to address common challenges with new “out-of-the-box” thinking.

 The wider adoption and acceptance of online meetings with remote workers via Zoom and similar platforms is just one example of how pre-pandemic assumptions and practices have quickly become relics of the past, pointing the way to a paradigm shift in how businesses now routinely operate.

 As leaders grapple with the complexities caused by the upheaval in the workplace, traditional ways of gaining inspiration and insight (corporate retreats, webinars, innovation courses, conferences) no longer provide the multidimensional view needed. Global leaders must work with their peers across the country, industry, and company borders to solve problems, create innovative approaches, think anew, and prepare for a very different “future of work.”

 This is the idea behind Innovation Ecosystems — an “interconnected system” or a working group through which individuals with common goals, purpose, or challenges openly share, collaborate, learn, and co-create new opportunities. A recent study showed that leaders who collaborate with peers to solve real-world challenges achieve 30% greater results than leaders who go it alone.

The concept is not new.  “Communities of Practice” (CoP) were first advanced in the 1990s, but have been observed throughout history. A famous example is a CoP that developed around Xerox customer service representatives who began exchanging repair tips and tricks in informal meetings over breakfast or lunch. Eventually, Xerox saw the value of these interactions and created the Eureka project to allow these interactions to be shared across the global network of representatives. The Eureka database has been estimated to have saved the corporation $100 million.

Technology has allowed these CoPs to expand far beyond informal, localized chat sessions to virtual worldwide gatherings involving diverse participants. Silicon Valley is the “birthplace” of the global innovation ecosystem collaboration – interconnecting startups, students, investors, corporations, the public sector, service providers, and even competitors who are committed to changing the world through technology. It is precisely this incubation of collaboration, fierce competition, agility, continual learning, and moving forward that makes Silicon Valley one of the most successful places in the world for entrepreneurs.

In an Innovation Ecosystem, 3-20 people from diverse backgrounds collaborate regularly to share experiences, challenge one another, and learn from each other to advance a common purpose, goal, or challenge. All are committed to taking action, sharing key learnings, and contributing equally to create value for the participants.

By supporting and holding one another accountable to get out of their comfort zone and think differently, members gain confidence as future-ready leaders, collaborating directly with their peers, mentors, and colleagues to co-create new products, tools, and business models.

One such innovation ecosystem is the Executive Growth Alliance. This global community of open, committed, brave leaders from companies such as Schneider Electric, Novartis, Sutter Health, IKEA, RoboBank, Norwegian Air, YMCA, Wilhelmsen, and many more have proven the power of communities working together. By participating in regular facilitated Executive Growth Circles (EGC), members overcome adversity, co-create new solutions, and deliver record-setting results. During the COVID period of uncertainty, their work in EGA was more important than ever when conferences, learning programs, and travel were suspended.

Each Circle is structured around a Specific Actionable Challenge (SAC) relevant to all members. SACs may be as specific as, “How do I identify new business partners to bring new sustainability solutions to market” or as broad as, “How do I transform organizational culture to motivate behavior aligned to the company goals?”

EGA members work with their ‘catalyst’ (a certified EGA facilitator) to bring SACs into each EGC and then gain insight from other members who have addressed or are addressing this particular challenge in their own organization. The frequent ‘aha’ moments come from gaining a fresh perspective on the issue and being challenged by other members to dig deeper and think outside the box. All members experience learning from the shared insights and ‘the boats rise’. In the end, everyone commits to take action in their respective organizations and work environments.

The result? Members report increased revenue, faster time to market, and improved employee satisfaction. Individual members went on to receive industry-wide recognition for leadership as well as more senior roles.

“My success in rebuilding the team and increasing revenue and reputation for (my company) is due in large part to the insights and support I gained through by EGA membership,” said Kristian Sarastuen, CEO of Burson Cohn & Wolf, Oslo.

By providing access to diverse perspectives, backgrounds and geographies, and emphasizing active learning and taking action, Innovation Ecosystems are a glimpse of the collaboration model of the future. They might eventually evolve into DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) where members share resources, voting rights and governing decisions equally using blockchain-secured protocols.

One thing is certain – new ways of collaborating, co-creating, and learning are here. Leaders, who are bold enough to explore them and pivot into this new world will win the day.