5 steps to successful collaboration

Collaboration is a real buzzword as we accelerate into 2013. Why? First and foremost, as businesses turn their attention to their indirect impacts, and peer down complex supply chains that often crisscross the globe, the realization dawns that some of their key supply-chain challenges, from water security to labor standards, are just too big for one organization to tackle alone. Also, collaboration is an essential ingredient of significant change — not just any old change, but the change needed to bring sustainability into the mainstream.

At Forum for the Future, we have our own change model — the Six Steps to Significant Change — and collaboration is essential as we move from pioneering practice to creating tipping points. In our experience, competition alone cannot transform markets. This brutal reality has triggered much spluttering from business executives who have been weaned on a diet of competition equals success. But the line between pre-competitive and competitive activities is shifting fast (more later).

So, you think a spot of collaboration might be in order to accelerate your sustainability efforts? Here are five steps which could make this decision the most successful one of your career.

Step 1. Identify the right type of collaboration

This means getting your problem statement right. Or your HMW question (that’s How Might We ...). Or, in plain English: What is it that you want to do? We think there are three broad types of collaboration:

  • Open Collaboration. With customers, ideamakers, your peers — and it's great if there is a practical question you’d like answered and where you have reasonable control over the action that follows. Through Futurescapes, we worked with Sony to explore how technology can enable sustainable lifestyles in the future. To think differently and beyond “business as usual,” Sony engaged leading futurologists, social commentators and experts from the fields of design, technology and sustainability from across the world — as well as contributions from the general public — to develop four scenarios for 2025 from the infinite number of futures ahead of us. These scenarios were then used to generate a number of new concepts, including Wandular, a multipurpose device that evolves with you over your lifetime and remains up to date through cloud downloads and modular hardware plug-ins. In other words, goodbye to that drawer full of old mobile phones.
     
  • Vertical Collaboration. Where you need to work with your supply chain and influence other organizations to act. A great example is Eco-rating from U.K. mobile phone provider O2. O2 knew that a proportion of its customers would use sustainability as a key criteria in choosing a phone, and that an even larger number (up to 44 percent) would choose a more sustainable handset over a less sustainable one, all else being equal. O2 wanted to give its customers the ability to make these choices and, working in close collaboration with handset manufacturers, developed a simple and robust assessment tool called Eco-rating. Customers now see a rainbow label in stores, indicating the sustainability rating of all phones participating in the scheme — more than 90 percent of those stocked by O2.
     
  • Horizontal Collaboration. Where you need to create change that requires the system around you to shift, and needs cooperation between different actors from different sectors who share a common challenge. Horizontal collaboration is usually multistakeholder, as engagement of policymakers and NGOs is typically needed to create a shift at a sectoral level. At a global level, we have been running the Sustainable Shipping Initiative, an industrywide movement toward a global sustainable shipping industry. At a country level, we managed Dairy 2020, a consortium project that led to a vision and guiding principles for a sustainable U.K. dairy sector and which involved representatives from the whole value chain, from farmer to retailer.

Step 2. Secure permission to play

Really very obvious, but often not there. For open innovation, senior management support is essential. Otherwise, the great ideas and insights from the brilliant minds engaged will go nowhere — and the next time you ask for their time, they may be far less willing to give it. When it comes to vertical collaboration, new supplier contracts might be needed, which is impossible without senior management commitment. And horizontal, multistakeholder collaboration is virtually impossible without CEO support as the risks can be quite high — new ways of working, new business models, genuine hallmarks of system change. And a letter from one CEO to another can be very helpful in bringing a consortium together. It certainly worked well for the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

Step 3. Use great process, but make it flexible

Collaboration leading to results won’t just happen by virtue of the right people being in the right place at the right time. To make the transition from talking shop to acting shop, tip-top and hot process is the order of the day. Make that investment in the experienced facilitator, and if it’s a bunch of very senior folk in the room, get an experienced and senior facilitator. This is particularly important for horizontal collaboration, where it’s also vital for participating NGOs to be clear which hat they are wearing — facilitator or challenger. Even if you are confident you have a process that is eye-wateringly sharp, be prepared to flex it to run wherever the energy of the collaboration might take it.

Step 4. Allow time

Build in time for reflection in the process, times when participants can be alone, think things over, settle, calm things down. Difficult conversations need time to work through and resolve. Don’t try to rush the process. Build in an overnight stay between sessions, or dedicated reflection sessions with a reflective process (free-fall writing, visualization, etc.) For horizontal collaboration, plan also for a long process. Building consensus takes time, and people need to be prepared to be in it for the long haul.

Step 5. Reset the pre-competitive/competitive dial

And here is the rub. Businesses need to rethink the purpose of competition and collaboration, and move a bunch of activities into the pre-competitive box. For example, in order to change the mood music amongst mainstream consumers, such that sustainable products and services are the norm, we need to see the dial that marks the line between pre-competitive and competitive activities shift in such a way that greater collaboration is promoted. At the moment, too many brands and businesses think sustainability is a source of competitive edge. Which it can be, but wider change — where sustainability is the new mainstream for the so-called middle-green — will need multiple interventions by multiple players, strategically orchestrated. Refer back to the Six Steps to Significant Change.

Steps 2 through 5 are, of course, nonlinear, and neither is change. One type of collaboration can lead to another — horizontal collaboration leading to sectoral change may then require vertical collaboration to deliver some of the change within specific sectors. Of the three types of collaboration, it is the horizontal variety that has the greatest potential to shift systems.

Given the scale of the current sustainability challenges we face, nothing short of significant and systemic change will do the trick. This is why 2013 has to be the year of collaboration.

Image by Max Griboedov via Shutterstock