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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Collaborative Innovation and Partnering

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Jigsaw GroupBusinesses grow through partnerships. Whether you partner internally within your firm or externally to initiate a new business, source innovative ideas and technology, or create new channels for your products and services, a common goal is joint value creation. While many partnerships start with a big vision and goals, many fail due to conflicts among the participants. There is an immense amount of research and a large number of publications on the topic of what makes or breaks a partnership. Not surprisingly, essential success factors are the basic elements of human relationship building: trust, mutual respect, shared vision and values, and open and honest communication. While conceptually this is easy to understand, it is hard to achieve. Planning and the adoption of best practices with a system view of innovation, i.e., Management, Organization, People, Process, and Culture, helps:

Management: A passionate top management sponsor with a vision about the possibilities to be derived from the partnership is essential. An effective sponsor helps set the vision and goals for the partnership, anticipates and removes barriers to success, and when issues arise, helps resolve them quickly.

Organization: It is equally important to pay attention to the organizational design and clarity of roles and responsibilities of those involved in the partnership. Besides the top management sponsor, having a “relationship” owner to manage the partnership operationally is proven to work. The relationship owner should be accountable to the sponsor, and the project team members, while they may not report directly to the relationship owner, should be accountable to her.

People: Select people with the right mix of expertise and diversity, and the right mind set to participate in the project team. The team needs to collaborate across organizational boundaries, cultures, and sometimes time-zones as often it is impossible to co-locate the team.  Therefore, special attention should to be given to team building and development. The team members should be allowed time to define their operating principles and develop a mutual understanding for effective collaboration. The team should also be supported with proven collaboration processes, technology, and tools. 

Processes: Clarity around objectives, goals, and processes through which the partners will interact prevents many headaches in the long run, but often gets neglected. Initially, the focus will be strategic alignment and goal setting. At this stage middle and top management’s involvement is a must. Once the strategic agreement is in place, processes that drive day-to-day interactions need to be agreed upon and implemented. Questions such as “How frequently the project team will interact and how? How will problem solving be handled? How will the team’s learning be reported to stake holders? What will be frequency of management reviews?” should be discussed.

Culture: The values and norms of an organization are reflected in the behaviors of its people. If these norms and values are inconsistent across partnering organizations, issues are bound to arise. If compatibility of cultures is identified as a problem, sometimes walking away from the partnership might be a logical choice.

Going back to the essential elements of building long lasting, productive partnerships, “trust” is at the very top. Trust is an attitude of giving full commitment and expecting the same in return. Trust is like a mirror: When broken and glued back together, it never looks the same.

The next of the essential elements is “mutual respect.” Partners bring their expertise and capabilities to bear on the partnership. Each party should respect the other's unique strengths, and "recognize and acknowledge” that nothing could have been accomplished without the work and contribution of the other.

While each party contributes a unique strength, it is essential that partners share a common vision and values. This enables continuity of interest and the desire to try new ideas despite occasional failures, while maintaining a focus on a “win-win” in the long run.

Building trust requires open and honest communication, regardless of how difficult the topic might be. Participants should declare themselves, i.e., they should share their vision, how they operate, and where they stand on issues, openly and honestly. They should also take responsibility for their actions.

Anyone who has been in a partnership can tell you that they aren't easy. Partnerships can also be extremely rewarding and are often essential to the success of your organization and business. Assess your partnerships in terms of your practices around management, organizational design, people, processes, and culture. Implement changes where needed to strengthen the essential elements of success, or dissolve the partnership if achieving the essential elements seems not possible, despite best efforts.

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