There is no more fertile ground for innovation than when two companies come together in a partnership. It’s often the case that new ideas develop in the margins. Partnering creates a gap – sometimes large, sometimes small – that forces each organization to extend itself, to understand the other’s culture and processes, and to calibrate to their business needs.
Think of companies like Apple and IBM, Spotify and Uber and our own Dun & Bradstreet and Salesforce.com. These partnerships not only combine products and sales channels, they combine different perspectives, melding different people into a new team. If managed the right way, that new team can create disruption and add unique value at a pace and scale that far exceeds what a corporate product organization can do on its own.
What’s the right way to get started, so you, your partner and your shared customers derive the greatest value? Here are eight ways companies can create high-value partnerships quickly and foster innovation within their teams.
1. Inspire through Work, not Hype
When introducing innovation into any function, the temptation to lead with a healthy dose of corporate hype will always be strong. While innovation-themed mottos, posters, t-shirts, group presentations and the like can all play a positive role, too often it stops there, leaving employees with a valid reason to roll their eyes at the sight of the word. By starting small and introducing structured innovation techniques in a practical way to real partnerships, employees are able to participate, learn and experience first-hand the impact on their own work. As these techniques take hold, they will become part of the culture of the team. And as the team experiences innovation-led success, those successes generate the internal PR that is important to any organization, much more impactful. Save the hype for after the success!
2. Start Small, Plant Seeds
Successful partnerships run on speed and agility, and the introduction of any seemingly unneeded process will (rightly) be met with pushback. Frameworks like Human Centered Design (HCD) can help by providing commonsense techniques for interjecting structured creativity into the workflow of teams. By starting small and strategically, introducing innovation techniques one by one as a practical way to solve a real problem or build better a specific solution, your chance of success is much higher.
3. Focus on the What
Although innovation techniques can play a role in many places within the partnership lifecycle, it is the solution strategy or the “what” of the partnership where they may have the largest impact. In a startup or product organization, the bulk of the day-to-day work is focused on product strategy and development. Compare that to a partnership organization, where products may only be a piece of the overall picture, with business development and other activities playing a large role in the partnership lifecycle. Additionally, the natural momentum of a partnership often brings a sense of urgency to the conversation of what two companies do together. This makes the effectiveness of the time that is spent in creating and executing on joint-product strategy absolutely critical.
4. Expand the Conversation
So much of innovation is about expanding the creative conversation beyond the immediate account team. Within most companies (especially medium- and large-sized ones), there is often specific expertise and experience scattered throughout the organization. By introducing other interdisciplinary voices to the ideation process, teams can benefit from this experience, as well as from the general benefit of more minds solving for a problem. When tied to structured innovation techniques, expanded groups almost always increase the volume of solution concepts and ultimately the overall quality of the solution that is taken to market. Many Human Centered Design techniques can be completed in short 3-4 hour sessions, allowing you to engage others within the company for a short period, without increasing the size of your account team on an ongoing basis.
5. Involve Users Early and Often
One of the key tenants of any innovation function should be a strong and early focus on the user. By placing a focus on the up-front understanding of user needs (not always apparent when discussing a jointly-developed solution), and ideally engaging with users early during partnership strategy, companies can mitigate the risk of a failed partnership solution and greatly increase the ROI of solutions that go to market. Although research can play a role in this, a direct connection to human beings is hard to replace. At Dun & Bradstreet we leverage techniques such as Stakeholder Mapping and Persona Development to help us better understand users. In the end, the simple act of talking to a handful of people you are developing a solution for can be a game changer.
6. Test, Adjust and Repeat
Just as involving users early and often is critical, keeping that connection alive is the key to producing the most profitable partnership solutions. The ability to test a solution with users as it is developed and to iterate along the way is essential. Ideally, this process continues after launch, with an ongoing feedback loop that tracks use and user feedback, so you can improve the solution in-market. Partner teams should also not be afraid to take a page from the startup community, and consider a pivot within the partnership as an alternative to a long-standing partnership disappointment. Many famous products found success by changing direction from Groupon (once a way to organize around local causes) to YouTube (once a video dating site).
7. Make It a Partnership Activity
One of the great byproducts of innovation activities is their natural strength as relationship builders. When executed right, most Human Centered Design techniques require people to interact with each other on a different level, collaborating and iterating on ideas as a team. There is also a purposeful leveling of the opinions in the room. By mixing, matching and iterating on ideas, all voices share the same weight, compared to an open forum “brainstorming’ where the loudest or most senior person in the room ends up holding court. This very real phenomenon has joined the ranks of corporate buzzwords as “Democratizing Innovation”. All of this leads to a real opportunity to set the tone of a partnership early. Engaging partners or potential partners in a single innovation activity can quickly move the conversation to a friendly, collaborative place focused on delivering joint value.
8. Strategically Apply Help
There is no lack of innovation resources available to any company, and the innovation software and consulting industry is quite active. Eventually you may find the need for specific tools, or for wide-scale organizational consulting, but you do not need to start there. By simply training a core set of people in Human Centered Design principles and actively using those techniques to create partnership solutions, most companies can greatly increase the volume of ideas, speed the time to a partner solution and greatly improve the ROI of solutions brought to market. Human Centered Design training is widely available from companies like the Luma Institute, IDEO and scores of others.
Innovation is about bringing people together for the purpose of creating better partnerships and solutions. If you would like to share how your organization is handling this, or just to say hello, you can find me at @MichaelDnB https://twitter.com/michaeldnb