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The Innovation Partnership Paradox

Most organisations do not practice what they preach when it comes to partnerships and collaborations. Andrew Armour FRSA asks why this paradox exists and how can it be overcome.

The latest General Electric Innovation Barometer  found that 80 percent of top executives agree their organisations need to innovate differently and 86 percent say that partnerships and collaboration are the key to this. Yet there is a ‘partnership paradox’: only 21 percent are practicing what they preach.  A year earlier the 2011 Barometer highlighted the importance of local small businesses, local community and partnerships as the key elements of innovation.

Beth Comstock, GE’s Global Chief Marketing Officer stated in Harvard Business Review that she sees collaboration as the most vital part of her senior marketer’s role; leading from the front, focusing activity on building alliances, research partnerships and exploring connections across industries.

For Comstock the heart of innovation is all about partnership and collaboration. Large businesses need to partner with SME’s, entrepreneurs, think tanks, innovation centers and industry allies. They need to be open and build long-term relationships that give them an advantage; a collaborative advantage. The Barometer research, which was conducted across cultures and industries shows that executives acknowledge that partnerships are vital.

This is nothing new. The need for new relationships, connections and fresh conversations to drive creative thinking, new ideas and problem solving has been pointed out by many. Indeed, Charles Darwin said: “In the long history of humankind, it is those who have learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed”.

The work of modern writers and experts in creativity and innovation such as Scott Berkun[1] and Tom Kelley are also clear; you innovate through collaboration and looking externally, rather than getting bogged down in what you are good at today and doing it all in-house.

So why is there this Partnership Paradox? Why do executives see the need to collaborate and partner but cannot initiate and invest in them? One view could be that executives do not see partnerships and alliances as a key first step but rather a bit of a luxury. Perhaps they see it as a finishing touch. But I think the Paradox is telling us something else, a deeper inconvenient truth about organisations and leadership culture. That many executives are not comfortable or skilled in building and maintaining highly valuable personal and organisational relationships.

It is the inability to build personal trust, explore new business models and change existing thinking that is a common block to innovation. John Abele, Founder of Boston Scientific, described this in his article in HBR July 2011: “Many people go through the motions but few know how to collaborate. I am struck by the behaviour of otherwise bright people who poison potentially rich collaborations – without realising it”.

So it is easier to do what most companies do when they ‘do innovation’. They revert internally; focus on what they know and what they can control. They recruit people, invest in ‘R&D’ and try to build an internal culture of innovation. It is often a knee jerk reaction built more on fear and isolation than creativity and collaboration. It is process that has been described as ‘like watching your uncle dance at a disco’.

Over the years I have been lucky enough to meet and work with a wide variety of entrepreneurs, agencies, creatives, venture capitalists and business leaders. One thing is evident in all of best ones. They have a love for meeting new people, hearing about fresh ideas and exploring different opportunities. They are open minded, share insights and connections and interested in a variety of connections.

As Beth Comstock says: “For innovation to flourish, we must embrace a new innovation paradigm that promotes collaboration between all players – big, small, public, and private – that fosters creativity, and emphasizes solutions that meet local needs.” It is about having a curious nature and if and when you can find the right people, brands, government agencies and other organisations to work with, you multiply the thinking and the resources.

So should we be surprised by the Partnership Paradox?  High-value, high-risk relationships are not easy and do not always provide quick solutions. They can be complicated and need an investment of time and other treasure. But increasingly, there is no alternative. Partnerships and collaborations are not just useful additions for giants such as Apple, General Electric, Virgin and Xerox, they are becoming vital to what they do and how they do it. And for new businesses their success increasingly depends not just what they know but who they know.

So can we encourage more collaboration? It is up to people to do the collaborating and there is a need to encourage rich personal, one-to-onecommunications built around trust and listening. Great business collaboration is fuelled by people who mix their commercial savvy with emotional intelligence and an interest in what others think. What is required is a new breed of executive and management that is willing to be open, to pioneer valuable new relationship, who can build trust and mutually rewarding collaborations. Those that can do this – or who are more willing to engage with it when partners approach them – will thrive and innovate.

Those that cannot will be stuck in the Partnership Paradox.


Andrew Armour FRSA is founder of Benchstone Limited, a consultancy specialising in partnerships and collaboration. He also writes about branding, marketing and innovation at his blog. Visit Andrew Armour’s website.

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