Collaboration is seemingly inseparable from innovation. How can we find the ideal company with whom to partner? Some of the key issues are whether a partnership is a short- or long-term affair, and partnership management capability – which is as important as complementary products, skills and channels.
Meet many companies, get close up with a few, wrestle with a messy melange of attractions and dislikes and after some serious reflection, settle on one or a few.
Collaboration nestles in between competition and conflict, so serious negotiation comes into play. After the honeymoon and the first profit season, full-on brawls can erupt and big fish can eat little fish.
When adventurous, innovative thinking steers search criteria it’s possible to create bold synergies and new opportunities.
For example, when Mercedes Benz looked for ideas for a radically different town car in the 1990s, the company did not choose to work with another car manufacturer or engineering company: they partnered with watchmaker, Swatch. Mercedes had the engineering skills. Swatch was outstanding at fashion and design. Each company brought different skills and experiences to the team, although with the benefit of hindsight, not all the skills were needed.
There is no doubting the exciting ‘new product for new market’ thinking by fashion innovator Swatch when it contributed its Swatchmobile concept to the partnership. Image-conscious Mercedes Benz brought its brand and image concerns to the partnership; insisting on safety, sustainability and quality. Swatch wanted fun and frivolous fashion for its big new “watch-me-change-colour” car.
Eventually Mercedes Benz took over the partnership, bought out Swatch and renamed the car. Mercedes called it the Smart Car; a name it still has today. The leaders failed to pay attention to alignment, to each other’s major market concerns and to establish a product development structure to bridge and replace vastly different cultures.
But back to the subject of finding partners. The traditional way is to look for a complementary match. Given business directions and target markets, managers simply list their skills, strengths and weaknesses and then list the complementary ones. They then set out to identify a partner who offers what they want. Many companies use this method to find partners in export markets.
There is another approach which relies on a random connection and fortuitous chance that gets better as conferences get bigger. We can wander around at conferences and industry events. There are also notice boards, on walls and websites, and there are events structured so that people meet quite a few other people randomly.