When it comes to innovating; to designing products, services, business models, systems or processes that will add value to your end users, collaboration is often vital to success. After all, no one business has every smart person in the world working for them, owns every piece of technology, has every great new idea stored within its vaults etcetera…All of the world's leading businesses collaborate because they know that to succeed, they must look outwards for other skills, services, technologies and opportunities. Why else would the likes of Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Coca Cola all be prolific collaborators?  

Nevertheless, the irony of the word collaboration is that it’s one of the most divisive words in the business vocabulary. Some people enjoy the tête-à- tête that comes with working with others, the diversity of opinions and the opportunities it so often creates. Others either arrogantly believe no-one else can offer them anything, or more often, have been on the receiving end of a poisonous collaboration and therefore prefer to keep their cards close to their chest and their focus inwards.

Collaboration should be a positive experience for both parties and most importantly, for the end users who benefit from the partnership. Whoever you’re collaborating with, the partnership must be win:win and value should be at the forefront of even the most preliminary discussion. Each partner should benefit from value, value should be created for the end user and coincidently both parties should also share the same values.  

Before entering a collaboration discussion, write a list of wins down for your business and their business. Measure how equal they are and keep this in mind throughout the early stages. If it favours you 80:20 then the other party are unlikely to put more than 20% into the collaboration, and if they do contribute more, the potential for the relationship to go sour is much greater. If the balance goes the other way, then you need to consider how much of a contribution you are going to make and how you’ll feel when the other partner benefits more. Likewise, do not earmark your participation and resources for activities that perfectly align with your goals or use the collaboration to get other participants to fund your own priorities. Beware of the vice versa as well!

It’s also crucial that you collaborate with people and organisations who have the same values and professionalism.  It is easier to teach skills than it is to teach teamwork and values. In the short term, you may benefit from another company’s skills and resources, but if your culture and values are in opposition then public perception of your brand could be impacted as well as your staff retention rates and general company well-being. Ask yourself, “Is this collaboration healthy for our people?” 

Finally, keep the end user at the forefront of discussions. Whilst the collaboration needs to be a win:win for each partner, it will only succeed if it adds value to the end user. Just like any other innovation activity, collaboration needs to follow a user-centric process. So be sure to assess how the collaboration will meet your users’ unmet needs, how they will benefit from the partnership and what user challenges it is likely to solve. You also need to ask how well your potential partner knows and understands your end users and whether educating them is a valuable use of your time.  If after considering these things, you realise that the benefits to the end user are negligible, or worse, the end user is not going to benefit from the collaboration at all, then walk away. 

Collaborating to innovate has disrupted industries and created powerful products and services. To achieve similar success, the key word to remember is ‘value’. Stay true to your values, ensure all partners give and receive value, and that the goal is always to add value to the end user.

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