The value of collaboration

Dec 02 2010 by Bill Fischer Print This Article

Co-creation is the business idea of the moment. Lately, wherever I go, the desire to get closer to customers, stakeholders, suppliers, etc is at the very center of everyone's strategic planning.

This was most emphatically driven home in the "Driving Strategic Innovation" program – itself a collaborative venture between my school, IMD, and MIT's Sloan School of Management – where close to 60 Chief Innovation Officers recently came together for a week to discuss the latest trends in innovation.

They came from all types of industries: from manufacturing to services, from government to the sciences; and from across the world. The surprise here was that in virtually every opportunity to describe or construct an effective innovation solution, these seasoned veterans of innovation immediately turned to some type of collaborative arrangement in order to enlarge their idea pool, control costs or ensure that projects met their promised delivery times.

Co-creating new offerings in association with value-chain partners, either upstream (suppliers), or downstream (customers, or customers' customers) was seen as the smarter way to ensure acceptance and commercial success of a good idea.

What is so remarkable about all of this is that not so long ago, these same professionals would most likely have only been concerned with the aspects of innovation that occurred within the boundaries of their organization; things that they could legitimately control. After all, that's the way innovation was done for most of recorded history.

For decades, business school teaching on innovation was concerned with building more effective "filters" to avoid pursuing ideas that would not lead to commercial success.

Today, however, it's almost the reverse. We can manage very nicely within our organization, but it's the outside that we need to work more effectively with – to literally bring the outside inside, so that we can shorten the time and distance between those who have the next good idea and those who can benefit from it.

Now, rather than being preoccupied with filtering ideas, we are hungry for ways to get more and better ideas. We can always filter later.

In a forthcoming book, entitled "The Idea Hunter" which be published next spring, my co-authors and I argue that the pace of change in today's world is such that in order to stay ahead, astute companies and individuals must recognize that the hunt for new ideas has to become continuous and relentless. They need to be cognizant that almost always the more ideas you can work with, the better.

In fact, if you take this to the next logical step, you arrive at the conclusion that: the more minds you can engage in the hunt for new ideas, the better. This has become part of my professional mantra: More ideas are always better than fewer; more minds are always better than fewer! Always, not sometimes! And, of course, the more different minds you can enlist, the higher the probability of finding a really different idea.

Implicit in all of this is an acceptance that I will now have to make tougher calls on not pursing quite a few of the good ideas out of the many that I can get, but getting them is more important than worrying about how to filter them. Collaboration will become a way of life, rather than an occasional strategic "experiment."

Only a few weeks ago, I had a chance to try this first-hand. IMD was working with a global-leading fast moving consumer goods company that was concerned about issues of brand-building. They wanted to generate "Wow!Brands" – those which excite consumers and create a viral "buzz" in the marketplace and have a sustaining capability to do this repeatedly.

Apple, Red Bull and Football Club Barcelona are three examples of such brands because they are exciting, energizing and each has created a tribal allegiance among their customers, supporters and fans.

The challenge for our client company was applying lessons from such brands. The "Wow! factor" is more an emotional, visceral, reaction rather than an intellectual construct. And this, in turn, suggests that to try to "teach" people about "Wowness" – to instruct them in a classical teaching classroom format – would be far less effective, maybe even futile, than to invite the target audience (the participants) into the planning of this program from the very start, so that they could help define, from each of their distinctive local perspectives (they came from throughout the world), what "wowness" means to them and why.

In a sense, we were all teaching each other, simultaneously, and co-creating the course as we did. This changed everything. My principle role, as a "professor" was no longer to "broadcast the truth" but to provide frameworks and vocabulary by which each participant could interpret their local experience into part of what became a shared global story about what it took to create a Wow!Brand.

The results were extraordinary. The week was energizing, everyone was completely engaged and we all learned from each other. Without co-creation, the results would have been far less impressive, and far less effective in contributing to the strategic aspirations of our client firm.

Among the biggest lessons we learned were:

  • Wow!Brands dream bigger than the others, but if you rely only upon "corporate insiders" for your dreams, you will have a very small set.
  • The Wow!Brands have all used regular customers to share their dreams in order to create the future.
  • Most firms "push" to customers, rather than inviting the customers to "pull" – Wow!Brands enjoy the "power of pull" from their fully-engaged co-creating customers.
  • Someone in any organization needs to be responsible for making co-creation happen; it just doesn't happen on it's own.
  • Co-creation requires sufficient managerial self-confidence to allow others (outsiders) to help plot the organization's future. This can be somewhat frightening, because you are giving up total control of the innovation process.
  • Finally, there is more than one "lost generation" of decision-makers in today's large organizations – successful managers who are so unfamiliar with social networking technologies that they are not even aware of what is going on in the world around them, and as a result they run the risk of making the wrong strategic choices.

My biggest personal take-away from the "Wow!Brand" week was that, as always, getting more minds engaged in sharing the burden of creating new ideas, both made it easier to find these new ideas, but also the resulting ideas were much more interesting than if I had tried to do it myself, or with a small team.

The big challenge, of course, is "trust": giving-up absolute control over the end-results, and trusting others to contribute their best to a group effort. The participants, in fact, spoke of "fear" when it came to sharing idea-leadership with value-chain partners, but, in the end, we all agreed that the power of the final results, were worth far more than the security of controlling who participated, when and how.

Co-creation will become the way of the future in describing all innovative activity and that collaboration – which has become one of IMD's new values – will characterize how we go about all of what we do. Remember: More ideas are always better than fewer; more minds are always better than fewer! Collaboration makes this possible!

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About The Author

Bill Fischer
Bill Fischer

Bill Fischer is Professor of Technology Management at IMD, the leading global business school based in Lausanne, Switzerland.