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  • Writer's pictureMalcolm De Leo

Innovation Partnerships: Why They Are Like a Virus

No one likes to innovate alone. Frankly, doing it all by yourself is boring. Sure, there have been huge innovations birthed by people working in the dark, on their own, in their cushy lair, but more often than not it takes a village. The village modality is driven by leveraging the best of many to produce an output that is bigger than the sum of its parts. This happens when people are open, leverage each other's differences and bring their skills and abilities to the table in an effort to solve a big problem. But what happens when the collaboration is between entities, such as companies, that have different tools, processes and cultural norms? It is often very hard to have inter-company collaboration, but intracompany collaboration often takes the complexity to a new level.

For context, I will put my operational definition of innovation as a starting point...

Creating something better by thinking and acting differently

I will also put an operational definition of an innovation partnership as well...

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.

To create value in these situations is tricky. Why? Because there are so many variables that go into making it work that the odds of such a relationship failing is much higher than it succeeding. So what is the secret sauce to make these innovation efforts work? Let's first start with why they are hard in general.

Most innovation breaks things: The nature of innovation is to push the boundaries of what make people comfortable. And we all know when we are uncomfortable or stressed, we will resist change. For any group that is producing something better by thinking and acting differently, the team must recognize that they are pushing against norms and that is often hard and dangerous or both. We all know that status quo is the mean by which most people operate. Innovating challenges that and so it is the main reason it fails.

Sometimes innovation efforts are actually about learning how people don't want to innovate: While this sounds like innovation breaks things, it isn't. Sometimes, an innovation effort starts with the best of intentions only to find itself dead before things really get going. This is because those sponsoring it, often see what is happening and decide what they thought they wanted to be different is something they want to stay the same. They use the innovation effort to prove that they did not want it that way in the first place. Sadly, they start the big innovation program to prove they should never have changed a thing.

There are interests problem: The first stage of any negotiation is about thinking about both parties interests. If the definition of an innovation partnership is about collaborating across boundaries, then there is a good chance that the parties involved are interested in different things. This is often something that is broken from the start due to a lack of transparency or something that breaks under the weight of the people, the process or the culture that is looking in from the outside. Imagine the dynamism of any two parties. There is one entity, the other entity and the parties between them working collaboratively to innovate. As the parties work to create something new based on the wishes of both parties, the parties monitoring and sponsoring the effort are both living in dynamic markets. This could easily impact what the supporting entities interests are over time which can kill the best innovation projects. The reasons those interests can change are endless. It is why innovation partnerships are a delicately balanced activity.

Innovation partnerships need to be like a virus?

As with most innovation partnerships, success if about building great data that proves your point, but more importantly it is about creating a groundswell of support for your effort. it is about planning for the pitfalls you will encounter by recognizing where the danger lies. And it is about trust and transparency. This means innovation, like a virus, must infect and spread if it is to grow and thrive and become the new way people do things. The virus analogy is about being mindful of what is to come so you can plot your success with your eyes wide open. There are four reasons that innovation partnerships are like a virus. We will delve into each one of them.

Innovation's entry into a new place often goes unnoticed

Innovation partnerships often start with little fanfare. A lot of times they hatch in the mind of an individual or small group who see something others do not. Whether it starts on someone's computer, in their lab, during an external presentations, during a discussion between two companies in the cafeteria or at a conference, innovation's humble beginnings can start as an unseen force. It is often a seed of an idea that happens informally. Frankly, at the beginning no one often cares about something that most companies think are silly or will fail. The mistake people often make is drawing attention to their idea beyond getting what they need to succeed. Attention is the enemy of most innovation partnerships because most corporate cultures despise different. In fact, I often like to say most large company cultures reward people for failing appropriately. Low key is the best way.

It targets a particular system

The second thing to remember is that innovation needs a focus. Often times, if innovation tries to take on too much and change things too fast, disaster ensues. Why? Because the innovation's goal is drive a change. And in places that often resist change, if it tries to take down to many system simultaneously, the risk of making things happen will surely go down. Like a virus which tries to focus on a single point within the body, innovation should too. A virus finds a foothold to replicate and innovation should do that as well.

The body will resist invaders.

When a virus attempts to take over the body, the immune system will attack it. When innovation works to change how things are happening, the culture/cultures will resist it. In any business situation, the way things are done around here will always outweigh the need for change. As the innovation partnership gains a successful foothold and begins to draw attention from the rest of the corporate body, the resistance will grow. Whether it is from peers, leadership or those around it who are jealous, be prepared to face-off against the assured resistance that will ensue. This is not a possibility but a certainty.

It can take over as it spreads

The good news is that as your innovation partnership begins to demonstrate what is actually possible as well as valuable, it chance to take over and spread only grows. This is about when you are mindful over the first three steps you can look to be rewarded as the momentum grows. Like any innovation, you are trying to show people something they thought was not possible actually is. You are working to get enough support to make it go, so people can measure its change and recognize that it should be replicated and repeated. It doesn't matter whether it is a process or a tangible solution, successful innovation can grow and spread only when it provides value. The first three steps are hard so the fourth one can happen. And like any virus, a well defined one can overtake the whole body remaking things into its own perpetual vision for the future.

Being forearmed is to be forewarned

The innovation partnerships virus model is a high level concept designed to help you think about you approach your next collaborative innovation project. Knowing how things can go is imperative to avoid drawing unwanted attention that can jeopardize you vision and end goal. If you want your idea to successfully move the titanic away from the iceberg, you need to prepare, strategize and think about how to avoid the pitfalls most innovations face in their journey from birth to growth and ultimately to maturity.

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