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Make 2+2 = 5: Collaborate for New Solutions


Partnerships can let you unlock unseen potential. In a frank exchange, experts discuss how to get the most out of unlikely alliances.

We live in a world of change. From the energy sector to the financial markets, things are shifting beneath our feet. NBS’s podcast series shares experts’ views on leading positive change in the face of disruption. This episode explores how to use collaboration and partnerships to manage change.

Dr. Barbara Gray has researched collaboration for more than 30 years and co-authored NBS’s 2013 report on the subject.

Gordon Lambert is the former sustainability and innovation lead for Suncor Energy, and executive in residence at Ivey Business School.

NBS’s podcast series shares experts’ views on leading positive change in the face of disruption. This series is about discussion. We want to hear from you. What changes do you see remaking our world? How is your organization navigating toward the future? What topics should we cover?
Write to us at info@nbs.net or join the conversation by visiting our Facebook page and sharing your thoughts.

On the go? Listen to this podcast on Spotify or iTunes.

Here are some interview highlights.

Q: Is the nature of collaboration among companies changing? 0:57  

Barbara Gray: We have to have to find ways to collaborate at larger scale….Now we’re talking about transnational partnerships that cut across companies, governments, other stakeholders, and go all the way from small scale farmers who are producing sustainable coffee, for example, up to governments [and] corporate partners.…We need to think hard about how can we make sure that [partnerships] are working at all different levels for everyone.

Q: What is collaboration? 4:10  

Gord Lambert: I do worry on occasion that the term gets overused or misused, because it does set a very, very high bar on trust and it is hard work. You feel the difference of a collaborative table versus what I call a cooperative table….My definition of cooperative work is pursuit of individual interests jointly….Whereas collaboration is this joint effort to achieve common goals where there’s shared accountability for the outcome….You go through forming, storming, norming. You don’t tolerate free riders when it works well…you get really two plus two equals five outcomes.

Barbara: If we’re going to collaborate, we really are going to open our books to each other. We are going to be sharing technology….The time and the commitment is huge. And the willingness to really understand the interest of the other parties and take those on board for yourself….[Then you can] create a new picture of what’s possible, that neither of us could have created individually.

Q: When is collaboration necessary? 9:00

Barbara: When [someone is] interfering with your ability to get done what you want to get done. We don’t really have much choice but to collaborate or to outpower one another.

Gord: And I would just add to that an additional motivation, which is where we have these big issues of the commons [such as] climate. Any one company trying to solve it is going to be insufficient. You’re going to have to change energy systems or…behavior on a broad level.

Q: Can collaboration initiatives help businesses’ core operations? 10:12

Barbara: If your basic license to operate is threatened, you would be wise to look at collaboration.

Gord: Risk is very important as a driver always but I think aspirational outcomes are also very powerful…..As an example: in Canada, we have developed the Canada Oil Sands Innovation Alliance or COSIA….It brought 13 companies together….And one project of COSIA is the Carbon X Prize, to find value added uses of CO2….It’s a $40 million prize competition. The risk factor of it and plus the funding magnitude of that was enabled through collaboration….This is very much going to be a commercial play.

Barbara: The opportunity to sit down with your enemy, so to speak, to be challenged by groups that care strongly about some particular aspect of the environment, can open up plenty of new avenues for business and opportunities for spin offs and other activities that the business wouldn’t have envisioned if that challenge hadn’t hadn’t been pitched to them originally. As an example, read about the European PVC industry’s engagement with Greenpeace.

Q: How can entrepreneurs or small businesses get involved in collaboration? 13:47

Barbara: Entrepreneurs may not feel like they have much time for collaboration. But if they can find a partner who can sit down with them and spin scenarios for an hour once a month, they may really begin to see that new opportunities for innovation, for entrepreneurship can emerge.

Gord: Creating a circumstance or an environment where you get a collision of ideas and a collision of human talent can cause things to occur that you wouldn’t imagine otherwise.

Q: We can’t predict the future. How can collaboration help us deal with uncertainty? 16:45

Barbara: The opportunity for that comes in the form of what I’ve heard called laboratories. So for food, for example, when you bring ordinary citizens and businesses and government together for dialogue….We can, you know, we can begin to anticipate what some of those changes might be….I think we need a different kind of dialogue in in our society: One that creates a space….There are losers when new technologies and disruptions occur. So we need to begin with conversations…

Gord: I fully agree. In Alberta, …we are really doing a major transformation of our electricity system. But, fortunately, …we have an entity called the Alberta Electric System Operator. [It holds] the system view [and can] convene players together to talk about how much wind power can we bring on, …how do we do coal phase out….And there is a dialogue about retraining of workers in these coal-fired plants.

Q: What personal qualities are needed in a collaboration? 20:27

Gord: Arrogance is poison to collaboration. If we see arrogance, it just totally destroys the chemistry.

Barbara: I think listening is probably the skill that I would add as the most important. When I’m training students to be collaborative, when I teach teams, the first thing I teach them is active listening.

Gord: I often remind people that as we need to listen and respond not declare and defend. To declare and defend, it’s almost an artifact of that arrogance.

Barbara: When you’re talking about collaboration like the COSIA one — granted, different companies have, more or less resources more or less power in that arena. But when we start talking about these more complex tables that we began our conversation with — when we are crossing scale and we’re crossing culture and we’re crossing sectors — not everybody who comes to the table has the same power to participate….I think we need to think more broadly than in a Western mindset or Western frame. How can we be open to other ways of doing things — to indigenous knowledge, for example? We need to have First World countries recognize that they don’t have the monopoly on knowledge.

Q: For a manager addressing disruptions: what tools complement collaboration? 26:00

Gord: Well, I think being curious about the change is vitally important. It’s almost like listening: curiosity is one of those attributes that we often take for granted. But there’s a defensive approach on occasion to change….The climate issue to the oil and gas sector is a great example of that. There’s some people that just outright panic over the fact that, ‘Oh my God,, this means demand for oil and gas is going to need to go down. There’s nothing good can come of that.’ Versus a CEO that I had had in my background within Suncor, he said, ‘Gord, all my peers are panicking over this climate issue.’ He says, ‘Where’s the opportunity side?’ And in 2001 Suncor entered the renewable energy business because we knew that low carbon forms of energy were going to need to grow dramatically in Canada….For every change, there’s a negative and a positive opportunity that arises from it. Let’s be curious enough to explore it.

Barbara: Some people have called that vision advantage. Being open to possibilities that other people can’t see. And that’s the quality that a convener of a collaboration usually has….Some have come [to collaborations] out of sheer desperation, because they’ve been battling with each other in the courts for years and not making any progress. But in this day and age, it’s as much about seeing the possibilities as it is coming out of frustration.

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