Two heads (or organizations) are better than one. That’s the lesson to be learned from an innovation method variously referred to as “collaborative innovation” or “open innovation.” Consider the following examples from the lodging industry:

Courtyard by Marriott executives worked with Microsoft and Four Winds Interactive to develop the GoBoard™, a 57-inch interactive LCD touch screen that provides guests with information on the local area, airport, weather, and maps as well as business and sports headline news. The GoBoard is located in more than one-hundred Courtyard by Marriott properties.

Since 2004, Hilton Hotels and Resorts has been involved in the Innovation Challenge MBA Competition. Every year the company poses questions to business students located around the globe. In 2006, Hilton asked a group of MBA students at McGill University in Canada, “What kinds of partnerships does our hotel chain need to cultivate in order to grow the business?” The winning solution is reported to have “bowled over” Hilton’s panel of judges—so much so that it remains confidential.

Marriott Hotels & Resorts is collaborating with the office furniture manufacturer Steelcase and the design and innovation consultancy IDEO to design, create and test innovative concepts and solutions for the future of work and meetings in hotels.

As reported in last month’s post, Hilton maintains a separate wing at the Hilton Garden Inn LAX where the company invites hotel guests to stay in, and provide feedback on, its next-generation guestrooms.

The thing to note about the foregoing examples is that each company innovated by opening itself and collaborating with outsiders, which is why this innovation method is termed “open innovation” or “collaborative innovation.” Why open up and innovate with others? The answer has to do with collective intelligence–simply put, two (or more) people are, collectively, more intelligent than one. Or, to put it another way, nobody is as smart as everybody.

To understand why this is so, imagine a group of people piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. Each person possesses a piece of the puzzle and each is able to see a connection between the pieces that the others are do not. As a result, the only way to complete the puzzle is for all of the people to contribute their piece and their insight about how to fit the pieces together.

Assembling an innovative idea is a lot like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle in the sense that it requires a group of people, each of whom possesses a different piece of knowledge or a unique insight into how the pieces are connected, or both. Collectively, the group has the intelligence to assemble the innovative idea, but apart they are unable to do so. That’s why a group of people is often able to arrive at an idea that none of the group members previously possessed or could have come to on their own. Quite literally, the group thinks of an idea that none—or even some—of its members could possibly have thought of alone.

Inter-personal collaborations of the sort Hilton engaged in when it solicited ideas from the MBA students have great potential for generating ideas for innovative products, services and processes. Even more potential exists when you scale up to inter-organizational collaborations like the Marriott-Steelcase-IDEO collaboration because the collaborators are able to contribute unique skills and resources in addition to their specialized pieces of knowledge.

Whether inter-personal or inter-organizational, there’s more to collaboration than simply throwing some people in a room and waiting for the magic to happen. For inter-personal collaborations to be successful it’s necessary to attend to the things that promote the process of thinking together—things like using a facilitator to encourage positive meeting behaviors, employing innovation methods to stimulate people’s thinking, and supporting the group with collaboration platforms.

For inter-organizational collaborations to work, it’s necessary to attend to both inter-personal issues and the many matters that arise when you work across organizational boundaries. How will people communicate and coordinate with one another? How will the collaboration be governed? What about confidentiality and intellectual property rights?  How will the companies mesh markedly different cultures?

Collaborative innovation isn’t always easy. But the benefits out-weigh the difficulty. Whether yours is a large organization looking to collaborate with complementary organizations or you are an individual seeking to innovate with others, it’s worth the effort to learn how to do it.