Doing: Why Innovative Companies Collaborate With Partners

“If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.  Make at least one definite move daily toward your goal.” – Bruce Lee.  

new tech head 2014
Innovation Starts By Looking For New Connections Outside Of Your Organisation

The development of focused relationships with partners, allies and networks is a greater driver of innovation than countless rounds of internal brainstorming and intranet posts asking for everyone to be a bit more creative. Yet often individuals and companies cannot get over that first collaborative relationship step and move towards acting, testing and building something new, that could be greater than the sum of their two parts. Bruce Lee, knew a thing or two about the need to act and not just think.

Whilst Bruce Lee was not averse to giving Chuck Norris a good beating in this beautifully choreographed kung-fu masterpiece he showed a massive drive to getting things done in all areas of his work and life. From writing, directing and setting up a whole school of martial arts – as well as of course being a major movie star in his own right too. He was a true innovator, a challenger to the norm and he believed in a constant process of action, not just thinking. Clearly, good thinking, wishing and wanting is a good place to begin. And objectives, vision and aims are all good. But things only really happen when we focus on the tactical and make things happen. Flexibility in our approach is important as you cannot expect for the world (and partners) to always be shaped as you want it to be. As Bruce Lee famously described his approach it is ‘be like water’ (see the video above).  The entire Lean Start-Up premise is that business innovations and entrepreneurship is about testing your hunch and to pivot and change your strategy as early tests and experiments can be measured. The future is not however guaranteed. As Eric Ries famously puts it ‘a Start-Up is a human institution operating in conditions of extreme uncertainty’. We cannot know for sure that everything will work but unless we start to try we can remain stuck in a debilitating sludge of non-activity and status quo that dangerously, often feels comforting. Rather than a virtuous circle of creating, testing, learning we remain in one of repetition, stability and fear of change.

Innovation Is Driven By Partnerships –

new connections 2014
Partnership Connections Drive Our Best Ideas, New Conversations And Innovation

And so it is with business partners and marketing allies.

Unless, we take action and start a fresh conversation and to then test and build momentum, it is impossible to move the personal and organisational relationships forward. Valuable relationships are built on a level of trust that can only be created through increased levels of two way communication and a belief that the other party will ‘do what they say they are going to do’.  Momentum is critical. My approach is that companies who really want to innovate should partner and that this should start with simple first dates – not marriages.  Having a new conversation with someone who knows stuff that you don’t can speed up your innovation opportunities and open up new ways of thinking about your market, technology, customers and brand. The entertainment industries, aeronautical and automotive industries thrive on building smart collaborative relationships. Henry Chesbrough famously identified Hollywood and the tech industry of Silicon Valley as the epitome of open innovation in this famous piece published in 2003. Innovation, he noted, is built on fluid networks and connections, with big corporate backers constantly mixing and finding new small company talent and ideas from outside rather than inside their structures.  Brands such as Xerox may have come up with great ideas but without a network of collaborative partners they failed to commercialise them successfully. And Derek Johnson too, in his excellent book Media Franchising, shows how content and rights owners use licensing and franchising to create new revenues from existing properties and brands. Google, Apple, Disney, Samsung, Universal Music and Marvel are companies built not just on great creative ideas and talent (which of course they have) but on powerful connections, networks and collaboration.

Jason Davis – How Innovative Companies Collaborate (Forbes Magazine)

What prevents marketers from building better partnerships to drive their innovation?

In this recent piece in Forbes, Jason Davis of INSEAD offers a useful view of what works and what doesn’t. His research shows the existence of collaborative eco-systems in Silicon Valley, often formed of three different organisations working in a close triangle of collaboration, co-developing new technologies and products. Three is indeed a magic number. He notes that firstly, great collaborative innovation partnerships shared leading the relationships. Rather than one party ‘managing’ the other the driving responsibilities alternated between the partners, depending on the project. Secondly, Davis identifies that the best innovation partnerships involve a ‘cycling’ of collaboration with often successive twosome partner activity in a partnership group of three companies (Microsoft-CISCO-Intel, being one example). Such agile cycling of partnering activity creates a constant flow of new ideas and helps overcome the need to micro-manage the relationships (as traditional procurement approaches to partnering is often wont to do…) Thirdly,  in a nod to a lean type approach, there is a focus in these successful partnership on just one or two partner initiatives at a time to avoid pressures on resources and delivery.


Previous research into partnerships by Hamel & Prahlahad and Moss Kanter and the excellent research  by GE Innovation Barometer continually highlight that it is successful personal 121 working relationships and conflict management ability that make partnerships work. A lack of trust, a clash of styles, an aggressive tone, conflicting objectives and a rush to delivering immediate sales benefit are the quickest ways to poison a partnership well that could deliver so much.  And likewise, Davis also notes the presence of good faith and confidence in the most successful partnership relationships. 

Partnerships Start With First Dates Not Marriage Proposals

A key to getting partnership work started is to have the right conversation and then agreeing simple ‘first dates’ – the low cost, low resource initial work designed primarily to prove the people and organisations can actually work together.  But rather than kick starting simple, low cost projects with third parties to test how we work together there is a dangerous tendency for over blown, complex and expensive partnership projects rushed through to fill commercial holes. Many potentially rewarding relationships are doomed as they are built in haste with unreasonable expectations on unstable foundations.

Partnerships need to be started in a lean and flexible way, one simple and measured step at a time.  To paraphrase the Zen philosopher Morita, sometimes, by aiming at smaller goals, we can actually achieve more. Or, as an old boss in TV once told me, ‘Andrew, we’re starting off with a first date – not a marriage proposal’.

To see the full article by Davis see here.
For more on relationship building please see  To Sell Is Human Does Collaboration Make Us Superhuman?
or more on how I can help your organisation or team to find, build and plan smarter partnerships and collaboration (including Marketing and Innovation Workshops and Cafes) please visit Benchstone or contact me – here.


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.

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