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How to fix the nation’s Collaboration Problem

If you picture some of history’s most powerful businesses – General Motors, Microsoft, Walmart – a few traits come to mind. They had size and dominance and seemingly endless resources. They had a ‘top-down’ approach in dealings with both employees and customers, took a protectionist attitude to their IP and moved at their own pace. 

But now, everything has changed. Today, success hinges on efficiency, agility, and reaction time. In an environment in which the next big disruption is right around the corner, businesses, educators and government leaders alike are coming to the realisation that what got them ‘here’, won’t get them ‘there’ in the future.

In fact, ‘getting there’ requires a completely new way of thinking – one that puts collaboration at the centre.

Heads in the sand

When the Internet boomed in popularity, many businesses enforced bans, blocking employees from surfing the web on company time. It seems ridiculous now given the connectivity of business today, but surprisingly, many companies still take this same, closed-off approach to new technologies and collaboration. They pretend as if change isn’t happening, even when it’s already permeated every part of their business.

Perhaps, that’s part of the reason why true collaboration has proven elusive, even as our startup ecosystem develops and our business and education systems remain strong. OECD ranked Australia last when it comes to collaboration between businesses, universities and publicly funded research organisations. Indeed, only five percent of all Australian businesses have any engagement with our universities.

But we can no longer remain buried in our respective sandboxes. Building an innovative economy means recognising that there are smart people inside and outside of our organisations and only when those minds mix can we drive the best outcomes. Results-focused collaboration between all of these major forces (namely, startups, corporates and universities) will reinforce and accelerate innovation across the board.

Eliminating innovation antibodies

The benefits of collaboration for startups and universities are obvious. Tapping into the resources, scale and customer bases of large corporates can unlock new opportunities and accelerate growth. It’s corporates, government departments and other legacy organisations that have the most to gain – and the most hurdles to overcome.

 That’s because there are numerous barriers to innovation within a traditional corporate environment. I prefer to call them ‘antibodies’ – entrenched structures and cultures that push out or stifle innovative ideas before they have a chance to flourish. Ridding businesses of these antibodies means learning from their smaller, more agile counterparts – it means getting ‘lean’. Corporates need to adopt the ‘do or die’ mentality that startups have. They need to be nimble and embrace the reality that the only constant is change.

Given that up to 90 percent of startups fail, corporates need to keep an eye out for the ones that have stuck around. Partnering with startup accelerator programs is a step in the right direction, one such example being muru-D, a startup accelerator backed by Telstra that encourages startups to think big and corporates to learn ‘lean’ behaviour by leveraging synergies and truly collaborating.

The lean approach prioritises ideas, validates them as quickly and efficiently as possible and learns and adjusts as you grow. This laser-focus on validation has grown innately from the realities of the startup world – a world where you may only have six to nine months to get an idea off the ground, prove product/market fit, gain traction and start earning revenue before they switch off the lights – a world in which collaboration is a necessity just to survive.

Traditional business leaders can benefit from a more urgent approach to testing. Corporate projects often drag on without meaningful progress checks, data is siloed and bogged down by legacy structures and pressure is deflected toward other teams or departments. With quick validation, business leaders can toss out ideas or business models that aren’t going to work and refine and polish the ones that will. The number of failed ideas increases but so do the opportunities for game-changing wins.

Getting lean also requires businesses to put the customer first. Instead of dictating what products and services your customers need to buy, businesses must build products and services around customer needs. In essence, businesses need to collaborate with customers – empathising with them before they build and never making assumptions about what they want or need.

It’s easy to recommend that businesses collaborate, get lean and think more innovatively, but much more difficult to put into practice, especially after leaders have honed their skills in traditional corporate environments. But fostering a culture of collaboration and creating pathways for open innovation, we can begin to break down barriers and start on the path towards true transformation.

About the author

Dr Jeffrey Tobias is an AGSM Fellow at UNSW Business School and Managing Director of the Strategy Group. He specialises in innovation and collaboration, and works with organisations to improve customer experience and increase revenue growth by transforming the way they do business. His work is being applied in some of the world’s largest corporations and governments around the globe.


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Jeffrey Tobias

Jeffrey Tobias

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