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  • Writer's pictureMalcolm De Leo

Innovation Partnerships: The Team within a Team

When you are the representative for your company in a partnership where does you loyalty lie? It seems like a strange question, right? Your answer seems obvious; I am loyal to the interests of my company first because that is who I represent, they pay me and my ethics dictate that I should do what I can to forward the financial success of my firm.

What if I told you that it is the wrong approach?

To most, this question seems blasphemous. If I had a dollar the number of times a person I am collaborating with in a cross-company partnership "companies up" when things are outside the box, I would be on a beach somewhere by now. Too often, in my experience, people put their corporate hats on when they leave home each day and forget their humanity. Once they clock in, they act as if they are an ant in a colony with a job to do to keep the collective healthy. What I am arguing is that the focal point of success in any partnership is to remember that the people in between both organizations do have a job to do. Sure, there are many ways they can do that job successfully if they are capable of letting their guard down. My argument with those who "company up" instead of opening their minds won't be able to make an innovation partnership thrive because your loyalty needs to lie at the boundary of that team first.

Remember, in this case, we are talking about a collaboration that is going to bring something novel to life. You might ask what novel means, and we can give a wide definition like doing something that would cause a change to a process or product that improves how things are done. This is a pretty wide definition for the sake of this post. This means something like putting a new ERP system that is going to save millions of dollars for your company is something that might be considered novel, because you are implementing or creating a change to what you have done in the past.

In addition to the definition of novel, I want to reiterate my definitions of both innovation and innovation partnerships here to level set

My definition of innovation

Creating something better by thinking and acting differently

My definition of an innovation partnership

A collaboration between groups of people that are working across either inter-company boundaries (different business units, functions, geographies or groups) or intra-company boundaries (two different corporate or government entities) to produce a novel innovation.

When talking about subjects like this it is critical to align on operational definitions to ensure that as we develop the concept of how to change our behavior we are able to think about the theory in the context of a defined thing so that it minimizes disconnect.

Laying out the partnership players, roles, and structure.

This is a really simple one. Even though I have spent a lot of this post creating definitions let's get into it. In any inter-company partnership, there are going to be several layers of folks involved. Below is a picture of those layers in the most standard form as well as their interests

The company (The Entity): Both sides of any partnership will both have a company to answer to. The company is the overarching entity and ubiquitous layer because they are an entity with policy, rules, and cultural tenets that those who work within the company will follow. In an innovation partnership, the company matters because it is the silent guide between parties and does influence whether and how collaboration will or won't happen.

The Senior Management (The Coverage): This is who the partnership groups ultimately report to and who makes any final major decisions. The management is usually an executive (VP or above) who has sanctioned the work. They are not in the day-to-day, but the group operating between companies will both be thinking about how to gain their blessing on the work being done. The management is ever-present in the back of everyone's mind because they hold the key to success in moments when the company may try to exert its influence to stop things. The company in these cases are other non-sponsoring executives who will use the company as a backdrop for arguing against the changes proposed by the innovation partnership. The Senior Management's interests are critical and must be well understood by both parties. The senior management from both companies can often kick off a partnership from the top down, but sometimes partnerships also start bottom up where major executives don't get involved at kickoff but somewhere along the way. In a bottoms-up innovation, the partnership may not see senior management meet until the first success becomes public across one or both of the companies.

The Middle Management (The Stakeholders); Let's be clear, we hate middle management, but in most cases, we are sitting at the table together because they think it's important enough to enable those working on things to take the risk. They are the ones who provide air cover but are also the people who will get the glory for your success. Be clear about the middle management, they are there to protect you, but they are also there to protect their own interests too. Remember, the only way to get from manager or director or senior director to VP is to create a process or product that has a tangible impact on how the company does things, makes money, or saves money. This is the middle management's interest in sponsoring your work. They will be there to craft, guide, and ultimately support or deny you. They are your greatest friend and your worst nightmare because your success depends on a few things.

  1. Is middle management really willing to provide true air cover for the team or are they ready to bolt and protect themselves at the first sign of trouble?

  2. How much is your middle management support willing to let you scope the partnership versus getting over-involved in the scoping even though they are not really there doing the work?

  3. How aligned can you keep the middle management from Company A and Company B?

This is quite important because with the pressures of the company and senior management pressing down on each, there is much room for misalignment unless its truly managed well.

The Team (The Engine)

This doesn't need much explanation. The people at the interface of any two companies are the team. Their job is to represent their companies' interests and to create viable timelines, goals, and metrics to bring the collaboration to a successful endpoint. Everyone understands what the team is supposed to do. The question is how they will go about their work to create a win for everyone. If the team is the engine, then the question is how will two separate engines merge together to drive the car to the finish line?

What is the team within a team...and what makes partnerships work?

The team within a team partnership concept is simple. It is trying to build an innovation partnership where the cultural barriers between organizations are fully removed so it doesn't feel like work. A team within a team trusts each other implicitly, works together with open communication and a level of cultural transparency that shows commitment to the goal of the partnership more than their own companies' interests.

What makes a partnership feel like it's working?

  1. It doesn't seem like work: A really great partnership just makes sense. The people make sense. The work makes sense. The process makes sense. It all makes sense. This isn't by accident. Usually, if you think about it, the team you are working with is just really on the same page. You like who you are working with. Everyone has a mature approach to what they are trying to accomplish. There is a good process for dealing with issues and the communication lines in each company (or internal functions if you are inter-company) are strong and functional systematic. A good partnership.

  2. You don't let corporate culture rule you: The way your company does things is a collective consciousness that enables seamless execution but also creates groupthink, gives people a way to fail appropriately, and often creates unthinking robots who use the culture as a weapon to control others and amass power. This seductive pull from one's own company needs to be left at the door when the interface of two companies has more than one cultural force attempting to drive entropy into the heart of innovation.

  3. You put friendship before business: It sounds bass-ackwards, but I believe if you put friends before business it creates a level of loyalty and trust that will never be broken. This means trying to get to know each other beyond the work you are doing, making sure that your counterparts truly know what makes you tick, and ultimately you are looking to build bonds beyond what you do. If you do this, you will find when trouble brews, that new friendship can help you overcome obstacles because you understand sometimes its just business, but your friends care too.

Let's talk about the team within a team concept in an EVOLVED PARTNERSHIP STATE

As we think about innovation partnerships, there are two states we are trying to achieve, the evolved state and the enlightened state. First, we discuss the evolved state. As discussed above in the drawing there are two companies, the upper management, the middle management, and the team. In the previous picture, there are distinct boundaries between the companies. This boundary represents how married the groups are to the companies interests. Think of the line being how strong the likelihood is a particular part of the partnering structure with "company up" during the partnership. In the first picture, all functions are approaching the work as a committed member of his or her organization. One could argue this is a partnership of low expectation, minimal innovation and most likely going to be a case study in how not to partner with another group or company.

What is the evolved state?

This is the first stage of building a team within a team in an innovation partnership to break the company interest barrier...anywhere you can. The ideal place to start is at the key interface; THE TEAM. If you can create a highly committed open-minded and supportive team at the interface, then you are on your way to making the magic happen.

What does open-minded mean for the team within a team? It means breaking away from your corporate culture, your fear of disappointing your own organization, and simply creating a level of openness between you and those you are going to work with. When the tough stuff starts, you can't let fear hold you back. It means sometimes doing what is in the best interest of your partnership team rather than your own organization. It means learning to trust your company counterparts implicitly. It means not being afraid to be open about why your company sucks and to serve them best you have to break some glass to get them where the team within a team decides they need to get to. This is where a team within a team begins. And in the evolved state, you might just be lucky enough to break the culture barrier at the team interface only. It is oftentimes enough to find success because both groups can work their own culture to keep things going. It is only when someone chickens out and "the company's up" does failure seep in.

An Example

I once worked managing an alliance between two mega organizations. In fact, I was brought in to fix a really broken innovation partnership. In this scenario, I worked for Company A which was the customer, and I was assigned to a small group from Company B which was the supplier. In this case, Company A bought hundreds of millions of dollars of particular ingredients from Company B. The question on the table from Company A to Company B was how will you help drive the rest of my business beyond the simple commodity product I buy from you? After about a year of trying to get a real innovation partnership off the ground, I was brought in to help shake things up because there was a ton of infighting with the current inter-company team who never seemed to get things going in the right direction. So they were switched out. Here are a few things I did to create an evolved partnership.

  1. I laid out my interests clearly and transparently: From the moment I was introduced, I came right out and said the following, "The only way we can succeed is if we trust each other. And what that means is that there can be no secrets between us. I understand we have a job to do for our companies, but if we can't admit why our companies are keeping us from succeeding we will never succeed. I promise to be loyal to our work as much if not more than my own company. I see this as the only way to succeed." I can tell you the people I was assigned to work with were taken aback. While I was the customer and they were there to serve our needs, they weren't used to that kind of transparency and commitment. I said it. I meant it and I wasn't messing around.

  2. We talked about culture: If the inter-company barrier is created by corporate cultural loyalty, it is critical to spell out what your culture is. Corporate cultures are extremely strong tenets by which things get done and companies are successful They are equally guilty of crushing new ideas and keeping the status quo. If you aren't honest with your partners about how your company does things, makes decisions, and also won't be willing to do how can you expect your team members to facilitate success? Talking about culture allows it to become a tangible thing that is part of your team. Striving to get each others' culture is the foundation for starting to break things. Why? Because while those principles can stop you they can also be manipulated to help you. In fact, you have two cultures to take advantage of as you drive success.

  3. We agreed to a crawl, walk, run strategy: Everyone loves the quick hit. The quick hit is the seed of an innovation partnership. a committed team within a team will collaborate to align on something that creates even a small impact to show what is possible. This is the crawl. But also you have to talk about the walk and the run. A team with a team who trusts each other personally, understands how to leverage their cultures to drive change, and has a plan is sure as shit going to do a better job than a bunch of corporate wonks who serve the interests of their company rigidly.

What were the results of this partnership

After managing it for over 3 years we accomplished the following

  1. Held a 4-day inter-company meeting with over 60 people to build a pipeline of initiatives.

  2. Drove over $150 million in new products to market across multiple business units

  3. Moved from an evolved partnership to an enlightened one where the corporate lines blurred across both companies' teams, management, and leadership.

  4. I still to this day can pick up the phone and pitch business to anyone on that team.

Moving to the Enlightened State

An enlightened innovation partnership, if you look at the picture below, begins to create its own mass between the two companies. This new mass creates a cross-company bubble of collaboration that should look different to both organizations because it was born from a level of inter-company partnership that usually doesn't exist. It takes the team within a team concept to the entire partnership infrastructure. It is a place of rarified air that people talk about but never actually achieve. And hopefully, if you reach this state, people will take notice. It is no small feat to accomplish this. Why? Because during any inter-company partnership, people move, interests change, and re-organization happens. All these natural corporate events are going to happen.

What makes the enlightened state an amazing thing is that if you can start to spread your team within a team concept beyond the team at the interface then those changes will cause little to no disruption for the following reasons

  1. The partnership is its own entity: When the walls break across the partnership and the guard is truly down, then the "new innovation culture" created during the partnership becomes a real thing. This new innovation space absorbs the change because those trying to break it will have to adapt to the innovation culture created. This means that no single change is bigger than the goal of the partnership.

  2. People want to be a part of it: I once manage a different partnership where the financial success of the work was so great, that people fought to become part of it. They wanted to be on that team. And when people want to be on that team because it's successful, fun, and special things tend to continue as they should.

  3. People get promoted into positions of power: Innovation can deliver big value and people associated with it often get rewarded. Usually, when something is successful, promotions happen and those people will take what they learned and either try to grow what you have built OR they get more authority to drive decision-making across the partnership.

The journey to create a successful innovation partnership is long and winding. It won't always become a reality, but I find that the best way to create something is to create viable structures that define where you want to get to. Like an evangelistic pursuit, you have to go to the end, paint a vision of that end and slowly lead others there. In this case, the seeds to get there start with you. It starts with how you want to behave when you get a chance to live at the transom between two organizations. It flourishes when you can get others to believe in this new way of collaborating. And it grows when you bring the team within a team concept to life for all at that transom. Start there, make it infectious and magical things can happen. "Company Up" and things will stay the same stale way they always have and will be. It's up to you.

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