Innovation comes to businesses in many ways, yet one thing is for certain: It relies on a diversity of thought. After all, differing viewpoints have been known to encourage greater innovation. If diversity of thought is lacking, you’re left looking outside the company for varying perspectives — a likely reason why accelerators have grown in popularity.

Take a corporate-led accelerator, for example. The typical goals of this sort of collaboration are better solutions and disrupting economic development — ultimately, it’s an early pipeline of new technologies. In exchange for financing and mentorship, an established business can be at the forefront of new products, models, and technologies. The collaborative process can also teach a seasoned team a lot about resiliency, agility, and dynamic thinking.

Of course, not all businesses go the accelerator route. Instead, many companies choose to establish innovation labs as a way of encouraging diverse collaboration. Walmart has Walmart Labs, Google has the Garage, and Amazon has Lab126. Despite any differences, the goal is the same: engaging a diverse group in creating sometimes-radical solutions.

Throw a university into the mix, and you create even more learning opportunities. Researchers, scientists, and other faculty members provide a deeper and richer landscape. Meanwhile, students bring fresh ideas, unique perspectives, unbridled energy, and seemingly limitless drive.

Including Higher Education in Professional Innovation

There’s a reason why we’re seeing more companies move their research and development near clusters of higher education. Over the past 15 years, Greater Boston has experienced an influx of companies moving their research centers to be near the area’s 55 college campuses.

Partnerships with higher education institutions can invigorate companies, prioritizing the need for continuous improvement rather than rote best practices. Most companies focus on protecting the processes they do well — and they’re reluctant to change. Collaboration can be a great catalyst for incredible innovation.

A public-private partnership allows smart people at the top of their fields to collaborate toward a common goal. This adds layer upon layer of perspectives, creating a diverse mindset and generating the sort of intentional friction that benefits large corporations.

Collaborating With Universities

To successfully collaborate with a university, you need to first work through some processes. Here are three tactics that can help your program get off to the right start:

1. Methodize collaborator credentialing.

Time is the most precious commodity, outweighing even capital investment. This is especially true for academics, who often juggle teaching with research and professional practice. As a result, it’s crucial to systemize the way you identify potential collaborators.

Consider a “speed dating” exercise. Companies pitch what they’re looking for while students pitch their unique skills. Everyone has a chance to mingle before the students rate the companies and vice versa. It’s all about finding a match and complementary skill sets — or filling a gap. For instance, a company weak in social media could benefit from a marketing student who specializes in social media or user experience.

2. Set goals around your innovation pipeline.

Fresh perspectives filtered through intentional processes will drive innovative solutions. Focus on bringing together the best and brightest individuals to solve specific problems.

Outside submissions and viewpoints can help companies solve problems and add to their innovation pipelines, but each expert or participant must contribute toward a common goal. For example, most students are digital natives who have grown up with a different technological perspective than individuals in leadership. That perspective can be invaluable when held up against a roomful of longtime employees who have relied on the same processes for years.

3. Give collaboration enough time

Most innovation is about “de-risking” a solution. No one wants to invest money in a seemingly risky venture. Given time in a collaborative setting, you’re better able to test assumptions, discover untapped markets, and fail fast enough to learn something — and in a safe environment, no less.

To be blunt, you need to give people a chance to realize that their babies are ugly. In broader terms, you must provide ample time and space for bad ideas and good ideas to sort themselves out. Set a timeline while tackling specific problems such as mindset, process, lack of funding/resources, and lack of time. Remember that the best solution could actually be not pursuing the idea.

Successful entrepreneurs are successful collaborators, and it’s important for everyone involved to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset. Uphold teamwork over individual achievements. Welcome input from colleagues, and look for the best solutions to rise to the top — regardless of where an idea originated. Find creative ways to acquire resources, and diligently pursue common goals.

When it comes to innovative collaboration, some of the best partnerships result from companies working with universities. By encouraging groups of people at the top of their games to work toward a shared goal, you can unlock new and unique solutions.

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Dan L

Founding Executive Director at UMSL Accelerate
Dan Lauer is the founding executive director of UMSL Accelerate, an initiative that fosters innovation and entrepreneurship in and outside the classroom and helps bring concepts from mind to market.