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

What’s the basis for cross-sector collaboration? How does it relate to creativity? How do organisations facilitate cross-sectoral competence? The first wave of innovation was new ad hoc groups, staff positions, labs or project teams. Now the challenge is to embed creative competence in the organisation.

Social innovation arises when the ideas and practices of one group of citizens become an inspiration for others, ultimately influencing the general way in which society acts and thinks. The ‘social’ refers to its aim to contribute to the improvement of social conditions, civic practice, political engagement or other public activities.

Typically, after a period of incubation, an idea can gain traction across system boundaries. Such innovations are often “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.” (Sanders, Mulgan, Tucker, Ali, 2007)

For example, a method of planning can become a trend. Think of design thinking in recent years. Another example from the field of civic engagement is the idea of positive action for gender representation, which has led to quotas for women in business and politics. Initially tested and developed in grassroots groups, the idea became more mainstream over time. In cities, activists were inspired by E. Ostrom’s research on commons and applied the idea of commoning to their urban context. Today, urban commons enrich the landscape of civic engagement in our cities. The idea of deliberative democracy itself began as an experiment to add innovative practices with a participatory, consultative and discursive focus to existing political structures.

A necessary ingredient for innovation is creativity, not only because it helps to generate ideas, but also because it can engage citizens in a dialogue about their needs and the different ways to address them. As a result of this dialogue, new solutions can emerge 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.”

Zimmermann, Leondieva & Gawinek-Dagargulia, 2018

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

Firstly, it’s about space: the collective creativity of different actors from different sectors is more likely to emerge in an environment that is not ‘owned’ by one partner in the process, but can be taken up by all those involved. In order to serve the goal of thinking outside the box, it should not be located in a box.

Diversity-conscious Processes

Secondly, it’s about methodology, the way work is organised in a process. Different needs have to be respected, participants have to be tolerant and open to the way processes are organised and managed differently in other sectors.

Language Creativity

Thirdly, communication is crucial, as practitioners of intersectoral teams emphasise. Words can have different meanings, and different meanings conceal different needs and perspectives on the problem. People in intersectoral teams need to be willing to accept and explore these differences. A playful and creative approach to language leads in a second step to new vocabulary and new and better communication strategies.

Learning of Cross-sectoral Competence in Organizations

Organisations and individual networks are essential spaces where people are invited and willing to relate to each other, where new creativity can emerge, where participation ensures that creative impulses are valued, or where the organisational culture leads to people feeling empowered and motivated to collaborate and pursue their ideas.

In order to have more of these people crossing sectoral boundaries or solving problems creatively in their work, people need to be encouraged and given the opportunity to work on their creativity and cross-sectoral communication skills. Training for cross-sectoral competence in general is becoming more important. Up to now, however, cross-sectoral competence has been widely perceived as an exclusive quality of a few privileged people in our organisational structures. But can we still afford such a traditional “silo” organisation, with a lot of spoken and unspoken creativity bans, when workplaces are becoming more complex and the creation of solutions requires more and more horizontal organisation? I think that to make things work better, we need more people who know how to respond proactively to challenges, rather than adding cost and confusion by passing the buck or fixing things that should be changed.

Creativity handbook

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.


Sanders,B; Mulgan, G.; Ali, R; Tucker, S. (2007). Social Innovation: what it is, why it matters, how it can be accelerated. Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, University of Oxford, The Young Foundation, Oxford.

Zimmermann, N.; Leondieva, E., Gawinek-Dagargulia, M. (2018). Creativity. Building connections, drawing inspirations & exploring opportunities as individuals & groups. Competendo Handbook for Facilitators. Berlin: MitOst edition