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This article was published on November 27, 2019

[Best of 2019] The secret sauce of collaboration

How building effective cross-sector partnerships is key to success in the tech sector.

[Best of 2019] The secret sauce of collaboration
Alice Bonasio
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Alice Bonasio

Technology writer for #TechTrends, Wired, FastCo, Quartz and others. Startup advisor and strategic communications extraordinaire. Technology writer for #TechTrends, Wired, FastCo, Quartz and others. Startup advisor and strategic communications extraordinaire.

Let’s face it, the world is full of huge problems, and big challenges require matching interwoven ambitious solutions. Cooperation is the cornerstone upon which great achievements are built, and that starts with people who can identify and build bridges between stakeholders, enabling collaboration across disparate organizations.

The 5G Open Innovation Lab, for example, is a new technology hub built in partnership with T-Mobile, the University of Washington and the City of Bellevue, Wash, will connect 5G startups with investors and technology labs to test their products. Backed by big names like Intel and NASA, it will fund startups in health care, retail, transportation, and energy that 65harness 5G networks.

Jim Brisimitzis, general partner of the lab, says that these new networks will effectively be able to support types of businesses that do not yet exist, and ultimately have an impact similar to that of the dot-com boom. “5G is essentially a new, fresh perspective and we do expect that industries and job opportunities will change and evolve alongside them. If you were to — pre-Internet — think of random people wanting to make their homes available for sales to absolute strangers — I’m referring to Airbnb in this case — as being a viable, long-term business, you’d probably say that doesn’t make sense, but look at where we are today.”

It’s all about building a collective vision around which everyone can rally, and seeing the forest rather than the trees, something I wrote about recently here on Podium, when it struck me how even Bill Gates could have missed the point of the Internet. So it’s important for organizations to attract talent from a wide range of professional backgrounds, as those different experiences will inevitably bring fresh insights to the table.

Good leaders hold on to that outsider perspective even as they acquire in-depth insider knowledge about the product and the organization within which they work. This is what makes them such a valuable part of the team and crucial to the successful and timely execution of roadmaps and strategies. A case in point is Ajay Serohi, who was Senior Supply Chain Manager with the Indian Army for 23 years, where he gained a broad range of leadership and project management skills that now serve him well in the challenges of his new role as Project Manager in TESLA.

“While my formative years were spent leading men in the combat zone, my latter years have been well spent in managing strategic cross-sector operational initiatives. I established dedicated center of excellence (CoE) for fault analysis and repair center for IT systems besides establishing first of its kind Memorandum of understanding with primary transporter–Air India for logistics. I have led the maintenance function for critical artillery systems, worked with Raytheon (USA) to solve critical faults in RADAR systems and have established supply chain and logistics links to the highest battlefield of the world – Siachen,” recalls Ajay.

This is particularly important in the automotive sector, where your product represents such an investment in the customer’s part, not only financial, but also psychological and emotional. Customers increasingly feel they need to identify not only with the product and the marketing messaging around it, but also with the core value of the company which manufactures their good, which includes its supply chain, employees and partners.

“In the past, consumer products were pushed into the market. Some smart guys in the room decided what they wanted to do, what kind of factories they needed, what kind of machines, what suppliers, and then they would buy material, produce something, warehouse it, distribute it, market it, and sell it. What we see with Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things is that the whole thing goes backwards now, it’s a pulling action from the consumer,” agrees Michael Fraede, global business development manager, R-COG consumer goods, KUKA Robotics.

One of the keys to promoting successful partnerships is also to share connections, referrals, knowledge and resources in such a way as to truly enable your partners to succeed, even if these actions do not immediately or apparently benefit your company. The best partnerships are developed over the longer term and ultimately your partners’ on-going growth and success will feed yours as well. The decision by Tesla to establish business partnerships with Daimler, Toyota, and Panasonic highlight that individual companies may not need to own all of the resources, skills, and knowledge necessary to undertake key strategic growth initiatives.

Yet aligning one’s strategic goals with partners does not entail surrounding yourself with people who share your exact views, quite the contrary. Divergent thinking is a key ingredient in fostering innovation, and companies that want to place themselves at the forefront of disruptive industries must be prepared to take risks and be constantly challenged in their assumptions. Something you simply don’t get with groupthink.

Leaders who are confident in their vision welcome disruption both within their organizations and the world at large, so cross-business partnerships should also contribute to this dynamic. A case in point is the strategic partnership between SpaceX and Tesla. SpaceX plans to create its own satellite network, which Tesla could use for transmitting high-speed data throughout its fleet, providing awesome customer experience and giving it a distinct edge in the battle of the fourth screen.

In building successful cross-sector partnerships, you should also ensure that you have an effective exit strategy in place. A common misconception is that dissolving a business partnership is a sign of failure. Cross-business partnerships are in fact engines for exploring new opportunities, and an exit strategy ensures that the relationship only lasts for as long as it is continually being updated and remains dynamic.

And the benefits of such partnerships extend to society at large. More than three million people are set to benefit from a recent partnership between the UK’s National Health Service, local authorities and five universities and is designed to accelerate health technology innovation, a market estimated to be worth $371 billion (£307bn) and was forecast to grow to $529 billion (£437bn) by 2021.

“Each partner will play their part in helping address and overcome the barriers to innovation.  By working together in a new, focused and coordinated way, we will accelerate radical improvements in patient care, health service efficiency and drive economic growth and productivity across the region and the UK,” explains John Fisher, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Leeds.

At the end of the day, great companies start with visionary leaders who challenge the status quo, rather than defend it, but that also means being confident enough in your strategy that you bring others on board to help you realize your bold ambitions, something that has been demonstrated so effectively by entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk very well over the years.

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