Partnerships Big & The Small: Some Just Don’t Get It

We’re as strong as our network. And when small nimble players can appear and disrupt even the most powerful of industries – it is dangerous to be playing alone,

Cynthia McIntryre has just published a great piece in HBR explaining why and how SME’s & corporates  need to collaborate.  If they want to prosper –  SME’s need to form smart relationships with powerful players – and get access to their resources and experience. And likewise, if corporates really want to innovate, its been proven that they need to add the energy, ideas and freshness of SME’s to their mix. Its partner – or perish. So, why do some people still – not get it?

Recently I’ve come across two distinct groups of executives. On one side, are those that instantly perceive the need for smart, open innovation, collaboration and partnerships  – even before I start to discuss the subject. They’re ahead of me. They understand that organisations that adapt and secure key relationships build a ‘collaborative advantage’ – giving them an edge over competitors. And then, conversely, I’ve also met several people recently who simply ‘don’t get it’. They or their clients do not need to look at alliances, collaborations and joint-innovations. They appear puzzled by the whole idea of needing to strengthen high value relationships or discover new ones. Their business has strong leaders and things are done in-house. Ideas are owned. Planned. Delegated. Budgeted. Timed. Controlled. One told me – ‘I don’t think our clients need to be innovative and collaborate, after all, they’re doing quite well at the moment doing what they’ve always done’. And yes, this may well be true. But in 2012 this to me looks at best perhaps a tad short-sighted and at worst – it’s a volatile mix of arrogance and Levitt style marketing myopia.

Big or small, private or public sector – we’re all in the networked age.  Markets, technology, capital, communications and ideas are fluid and move quickly. And clients, critical staff and key suppliers too. We’re as strong as our network. And when small nimble players can appear and disrupt even the most powerful of industries (music business, newspapers, Kodak, Yellow Pages anyone?) – it is dangerous to be playing alone, congratulating oneself on the quality of your product and processes over the past 12 months. In their recent 2012 Innovation Barometer General Electric pointed out a ‘partnership paradox’. The majority of executives and marketing CMO’s freely acknowledge that innovation is vital to their business survival and success – and 86% agree that partnerships & collaboration is the most important element in innovation.  This point was also mirrored in a report by Ashridge Business School in 2011 which highlighted that  80% of top executives believed ‘building external parterships’ was one of the most critical skills for senior managers to have. Yet (and here’s the paradox..) – GE’s 2012 Barometer reported that only 21% are doing anything about building important new partnerships or allies. Just as some people just ‘don’t get it’ – a lot of organisations and brands say they want to be innovative and collaborative – but lack the skills, the leadership and the attitude to go ahead and do it. Its certainly safer in the short term to not build collaborative conversations. Its easier to do what you’ve always done. Its less hassle to have a transactional deal instead of a deeper relationship. Finding, pioneering, securing and maintaining high value mutually beneficial relationships is not easy. It involves scary topics and behaviour – such as sharing ideas, trusting the other party – and perhaps changing how you work. It’s about adapting to conditions, flexibility and empathy. Tough soft skill stuff. Great relationships, new conversations and fresh ideas are difficult – they need nurturing and mature peer-to-peer communication. But they are the foundations that make life and business worth the effort – and anything that’s worth having is never to going to be easy to get.

For the full piece by Cynthia McIntryre in HBR see – How a New Partnership Can Help Smaller Firms Win.

Author: Andrew Armour

Andrew Armour is a marketing and media professional, a specialist in business partnerships and the Founder of the consulting business - Benchstone Limited. His career spans from the UK music industry to the America's Cup, from winning agency pitches to securing key digital content deals. He is married to Viv, lives in Hampshire and works in London.

7 thoughts on “Partnerships Big & The Small: Some Just Don’t Get It”

  1. Great article Andrew and timely – once again it seems that many organisations have already adopted the ‘scarcity’ mentality which inevitably means ‘keeping or taking everything in-house’. Sadly this also means that often they are endeavouring to it all themselves often without the expertise or required resources which can only mean contraction – stunting their own growth and perpetuating the economic downturn.

    I’ve observed through my meetings and client interactions of late that it’s the traditional corporates and brands in Oz struggling – many are enduring profit losses, staff cuts, and at worst going bust. Staff are stretched and exhausted – the companies are not thriving and neither are their people. On the other hand, it’s the innovative and emerging companies and brands who are thriving (especially the smaller ones) – those who are most in favour of sharing and collaborating! Those who are partner friendly and positive – as you highlight.

    Those companies have the X-Factor! Ever wondered why it’s often not the most beautiful person in the room who gets all the attention? It’s usually the people who are warm, friendly, fun and approachable! That’s the X-Factor and it applies to business too 🙂

  2. Andrew and Simone

    Totally agree with the observations and sentiments here

    Interesting this week I attended a Social Entrepreneur Event on Oxford – the OxfordJam; and open networks and collaboration to hothouse some of the big societal issues we face; was a big topic . The same reservations were coming up in that forum too – but they did *know* collaboration and tribes are the way forward- so Im becoming inclined to see the reluctance at an individual level rather than as a company issue.

    Despite the altruistic discourse in Social entrepreneurship I hear of the fear of loss of control, the fear of being asset stripped by a partner and the leeching affect of free-riders. It really was no different to the commercial context.

    Most of the judgements being made weren’t through experience but they were looking for the worst in human nature. Sure enough if we look for the bad we will find it, but if the reluctance is at an individual level not a firm-wide malaise we can make interventions.

    Any one up for building an Open Innovators networking group – thats one group of positive people that really need each-others help



  3. Hi James –

    Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

    Very interesting to hear your feedback. There is a really big disconnect and paradox between what people ‘say’ they want to do (innovate, collaborate etc.) – and their ability to do it. And its often the soft stuff that prevents it; lack of trust, empathy, ability to be honest and open..

    And like you – I was amazed when I did some volunteer mentoring work with non commercial organisations at how closed they were to the idea of partnerships. The suspicion was amazing. And there was me thinking it was just the media world where I had been that was a bit tricky at trusting..

    Interestingly, I am currently developing a Workship Programme that I am calling CollaborativeEdge. It involves discussing the value of collaboration and conversation, re creativity and innovation – and then help participants to sketch out their own key relationship plans and some of the listening and comms skills people can use. Aiming to roll this out as an Open Programme later in the year too..

    Thanks again,



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