Cross-sectoral Competence and Creativity: Implant them Deeper in Organizations

What’s the foundation of cross-sectoral collaboration? How is it connected with creativity? How do organizations facilitate cross-sectoral competence? The first wave of innovation were new ad-hoc groups, staff positions, labs or project teams. Now the challenge is to implant creative competence in the lines of organizations.

Social innovation is created when the ideas and practices of a group of citizens become inspiration for others and affect in the end the general way of acting and thinking in the society. The „social“ refers to their aim to contribute to the improvement of social conditions, civic practice, political engagement or other public activities.

Usually after a phase of incubation, an idea may gain traction across system borders. Such innovations often are “new combinations or hybrids of existing elements, rather than being wholly new in themselves” and in their development they “cut across organisational, sectoral or disciplinary boundaries.” [Mulgan, Tucker, Ali, Sanders: Social-Innovation – What It Is, Why It Matters and How It Can Be Accelerated]

For example, a method for planning can become a trend. Just think of Design Thinking over the past few years. Another example from the field of civil engagement is the idea of positive measures regarding gender representation, which has lead to women’s quotas in economy and politics. Originally tested and developed in grassroots groups, over time the idea grew more and more mainstream. In cities activists became inspired by E. Ostrom’s research on Commons and applied the idea of commoning to their urban context. Today Urban Commons enrich the civic engagement landscape of our cities. The very idea of deliberative democracy began as an experiment of adding innovative practices with a participatory, consultative, and discursive focus to exisiting political structures.

A necessary ingredient for innovation is creativity, not only because it helps to generate ideas, but also because it can involve citizens in a dialogue about their needs and the different opportunities to approach them. As a result of this conversation new solutions might appear and be tested.

Creativity is an ability that helps us process the wealth of information that our
minds collect and forge connections between different pieces of information
in order to find a solution to a problem in a new way, or to come to a new
understanding of the problem itself. [Competendo: Creativity ]

Beyond the existence of groups and processes aiming to facilitate creativity we need as well collective reasoning. Especially when there should be a potential for innovation, the involved people ideally represent the different social perspectives or sectors. Their ability to create together and translate the innovation into their context can be named „cross-sectoral competence”.

Cross-sectoral competence is the ability to come to a cross-sectoral understanding and partake in cooperation across different parts of social systems. To help a creative idea make its way through an entire society, the idea’s authors and supporters must be able to share it with others and to convince them of its merit. Authors and others often use an internal language, following an internal logic, which can be perceived as a kind of foreign language. Cross-sectoral competence can help us learn these languages.


Aspects of cross-sectoral competence

  • Knowledge about systems languages and habits
  • Linguistic creativity: an ability to describe new things
  • Knowledge of the different functions and operations at play within other parts of the system
  • Openness and empathy toward the demands and needs of other actors and an
    ability to negotiate
  • The ability to situate one’s own action within the bigger picture and to organize oneself according to structural, or systematic logic
  • An ability to deal with ambiguity and unexpected situations
  • Reflecting on and and shaping power relations
  • Sticking to principles such as fairness and trustworthiness
  • A constructive attitude toward conflicts

Cross-sectoral competence is a mixture of attitudes, knowledge and skills. Therefore spaces for innovation need to serve these dimensions. In particular by putting emphasis on three design aspects of cross-sectoral collaboration processes.

Neutral and Inspiring Spaces

First, it’s about the space: collective creativity of diverse stakeholders from different sector backgrounds is easier embraced in a in an environment not being „owned“ by one partner of the process but that might be taken in ownership by all involved persons. In order of serving the goal of thinking outside-the-box it should not be located in one box.

Diversity-conscious Processes

Second it’s about the methodology, the way how work will be organized in a process. Here diverse needs need to be respected, participants need to be tolerant and open regarding the ways how processes are organized and managed differently in the other sectors.

Language Creativity

Third, the communication is crucial, like practicioners of cross-sectoral teams emphasize on. Words might have different meanings, behind different meanings different needs and perspectives on the problem are hiding. People in cross-sectoral teams need the willingness to accept and to explore these differences. A playful and creative attitude to language leads in a second step to new vocabulary and to new and better communication strategies.

Transition Experiments Rather than a Revolution

It is obvious that social innovation processes take time, and that during this time the original ideas will transform. They change their original character and, at the same time, society. It is a transition rather than a revolution. This is why we can call them transition experiments:

“A transition experiment is an innovation project with a societal challenge as a starting point for learning aimed at contributing to a transition”. [ S. van den Bosch, J. Rotmans: Deepening, Broadening and Scaling Up: A Framework for Steering Transition Experiments; p.17] Transition experiments go hand-in-hand with interactions across groups and sectors. As such, creative people intending to have a social impact need to be able to share their ideas, collaborate, and co-create a community of people seeking change.

Learning of Cross-sectoral Competence in Organizations

Organizations and individual networks are essential spaces where people are invited and willing to relate to each other, where new creativity can emerge, where participation guarantees that creative impulses are appreciated, or where the organizational culture leads to people feeling empowered and motivated to cooperate and pursue their ideas.

In order to have more of such people crossing the boundaries of their sectors or solving problems in their work creatively, people need to be strengthened in their willingness and opportunities to work on their ability to creativity and cross-sectoral communication. The training of cross-sectoral competence in general becomes more important. However, until today cross-sectoral competence is widely perceived as an exclusive quality of some privileged in our organizational structures. But can we still afford such traditional „silo“ organization with a lot of spoken and unspoken creativity bans while the working places become more complex and the creation of solutions requires more and more horizontal organization? I guess, in order to making things better work, we need more people knowing how to respond to challenges proactively instead of causing costs and confusion by directing responsibility to others or fixing things only that should better be changed.

The first steps toward such facilitation of creativity and cross-sectoral competence are already done. More cross-departmental working groups or Labs as spaces outside the everyday business are established. More staff positions collect diverse perspectives on key developments and feed them back. More cross-sectoral encounters are taking place. Now it’s time to consider how to implement cross-sectoral competence deeper in our organizations. The question is here, how we might support (and connect) the hidden agents of change, those accomplices of an innovation-friendly management in an organization? They are the critical mass for any successful innovation management.