Collaborating Effectively: forming impact-driven partnerships

flock of migrating canada geese birdsThis is the third part in a series of blogs on collaboration. Read Part I “Why Collaboration Matters” and Part II “Collaboration is the Jet Fuel for Social Innovation” by Tim Draimin.

After attending the Natural Step’s Accelerate conference, my impression is that collaboration is one messy business: it can be awkward, sticky and frustrating. This is particularly true when we try to collaborate across sectors. As we invite leaders from different organizations representing divergent interests, we’re thrown into a foreign jungle. We don’t know the rules, we likely don’t understand the group’s overall goal, and we probably don’t speak the same language. At the beginning, the group dialogue is often dominated by self-interest; a cacophony of Me! Me! Me!

To quote Avrim Lazar, “collaboration within tribes is easy but between tribes is destruction and dominance. Tribes can often trump common sense.” Too often tribes (or organizations) struggle to bridge their separate individual interests. If tribes could learn to form breakthrough relationships and identify the unique strengths and resources available to each of them, they could collectively act to make change to the larger systems at play.

Collaboration trials and tribulations

Throughout the conference, stories of strained partnerships and shortfalls in impact were shared. Bart Houlahan, former President of AND 1 sportswear, spoke of his increasing struggle to retain his business’ original social mission while gaining new investors. Environmental pioneer, Bruce Lourie, described the regrettable but reasonable departure of Greenpeace from the Boreal Forest Initiative that convenes over 20 companies in industry for environmentally progressive policy making.


Yet through these hardships emerged determined leaders, their visions burning with increased resolve. In the case of Houlahan, he co-founded B Lab following his stint in finance. B Lab initiated the B Corp Certification and the GIIRS Rating, which boosts legitimacy for social purpose businesses and impact investment firms. For the Boreal Forest Initiative, Lourie holds faith in the remaining members of the leadership council, as well as outside activist groups that continue to apply pressure.

Fruitful Collaborations

Although I wasn’t surprised to discover that high-level collaborations face significant roadblocks, the large number of successful collaborations already in practice shocked me, particularly those with “unusual suspects”. The conference put a spotlight on the experts in cross-sector navigation and communication, who offered invaluable advice to participants, which I have attempted to capture below: 

Be Issue Centered

When David Hughes joined Habitat for Humanity Canada, he was up against mounting debt and dwindling fundraising revenues. How did he turn it around? He put the issue at the centre in order to bring all the right people to the table. Hughes changed the positioning of the problem: the issue wasn’t about Habitat for Humanity, it was about homelessness, or the impossible choice a low-income family faces between feeding their children and paying rent. Not only was this a successful marketing tactic in Habitat fundraising campaigns, but it also allowed Hughes to invite “unlikely bedfellows” to partner with Habitat. In his eight years as President, Hughes doubled Habitat’s annual revenues, and expanded its operations from 55 to over 72 locations across Canada. David has continued this strategy at Pathways to Education through partnering with local municipalities, schools and non-profits. For David, having a Big Hairy Audacious Goal is essential to collaboration. His next BHAG is to create a “Graduation Nation,” where every child can graduate high school across Canada.

Create a Shared Purpose

Karl-Henrik Robèrt, the founder of the Natural Step, highlighted the importance of forming a mutual goal with a shared understanding between partners. Robèrt cited his own shared purpose experience from the early days of the Natural Step Sweden, where he garnered support from the Swedish King, government, and businesses in order to deliver the Natural Step’s principles to every household and school in Sweden.

In one of the breakout sessions, Nadine Gudz, Director of Sustainability at Interface, shared her top lessons to achieving a common purpose:

1)    Tackle the elephant in the room
2)    Speak more questions than answers, and do it with humility
3)    Foster persistent, continuous dialogue with your partners, especially if they’re your enemies

Interface Net Effect Program in the Philippines

Interface Net Effect Program in the Philippines

Through these techniques, Nadine has spearheaded a fishing net recycling program that upcycles discarded nets into carpet. Interface has partnered with the Zoological Society of London and village households in the Philippines to collect 20 tons of netting for the pilot project alone.

Asking Why & Other Dabbles of Wisdom

The conference showered participants with knowledge and insight. Charmian Love of Volans promoted five strategies for collaboration:

1)    Map and leverage relationships
2)    Seek out intrapreneurs, who are change agents operating within organizations
3)    Build coalitions of the willing
4)    Follow and listen to thought leaders
5)    Ask “why?” five times


Tim Brodhead speaking at Accelerate

As Tim Brodhead wisely commented during the first morning: none of this is easy. Good collaboration starts with sober expectations and with the knowledge that there will be hard times ahead. Collaboration is not for the faint at heart; rather, it is for the trailblazers who see the insurmountable issues of society being broken down only through an army of many, not a group of few.

How can corporations innovate for positive change?

During my studies at the Richard Ivey School of Business, many of my peers believed business and sustainability were an oxymoron. Numerous students thought investing in sustainable practices meant hurting company profits. Fortunately, professors introduced us to triple bottom line theories, social innovation and sustainability frameworks, which proved that companies can and should integrate environmental and social outcomes into their business strategy. Since that time I have been following the business sustainability world closely. For this post I’d like to offer my perspective on this compelling field including sharing news of an exciting tool called Sustainability-Oriented Innovation.

We are entering a turbulent period of re-thinking how companies can best serve people, planet, as well as profit.  Disruptive events like the 2008 financial crisis have opened new dialogues on the role of corporations in society, such as Bill Gates’ call at Davos for Creative Capitalism. A growing number of organizations, like Volans’ Breakthrough Capitalism, are making the case that “business as usual” is insufficient to meet the environmental and social challenges our 21st century world faces. These thought leaders, like John Elkington, are calling upon firms to change the way we do business. Novel frameworks are sprouting forth, such as Corporate Shared Value and Corporate Social Innovation, that encourage companies to re-examine and re-formulate their business strategy.

In partnership with Ivey’s Network for Business Sustainability, Dr. Richard Adams of the University of Exeter designed a thought-provoking framework, Sustainability-Oriented Innovation (SOI), which illuminates the path towards positive corporate change. Through applying SOI, firms can learn how to more directly contribute to the environments that allow them to be profitable.

What is SOI?

Sustainability-oriented innovation, or SOI is a “deliberate change made to products, processes, services, organizations, or wider systems that delivers environmental, social and economic value.” Simplified, SOI means doing something different to improve the well-being of our environment, communities and finances.

Why does SOI matter?

Similar to Corporate Social Responsibility, the impetus to do SOI is driven by tightening regulations, consumer pressure, and risk to company reputation. No longer can corporations ignore being accountable for damaging aspects of their supply chain, as the recent Bangladesh clothing factory collapse illustrated for Loblaws and its Joe Fresh brand. Greater engagement by consumers and the public, accelerated by the higher octane fuel of social media, are making it increasingly impossible for corporations to overlook the social and environmental imperatives underpinning their business models.

Stages of SOI

Importantly, not only does SOI involve incremental change like CSR, but it also reaches organizational and systemic level transformation.

There are three main stages to SOI, diagrammed below:

Stage 1:  Operational Optimization

The firm takes a structured approach to incrementally improving sustainability, through tools like ISO 14001 (ie: CSR) Think: Reduce Harm

Stage 2:  Organizational Transformation

The firm integrates sustainability into the corporate culture, becoming the status quo. (ie: Supply Chain Management) Think: Create Shared Value

 Stage 3:  Systems Building

The firm’s sustainability strategy is explicitly embedded within the greater system.  (ie: Biomimicry or Backcasting) Think: Net Positive Impact

Source: Network for Business Sustainability. 2012. Innovating for sustainability: A guide for executives. London, Canada: Network for Business Sustainability.

How can SOI assist business?

SOI challenges corporations to drive sustainability more deeply into their strategy. When a firm reviews the above framework, they must consider their purpose for innovating. Are they doing it to reduce costs? Leverage their core competency? Begin collaborative partnerships? Or transform their products into services? Through applying SOI, business leaders can better understand which stage the firm is at (if any), where the firm should be, and how to go about achieving that goal.

The SOI framework is one of an encouraging new set of tools to support next stage corporate sustainability efforts. Although it serves as an excellent starting point, the transition from Organizational Optimization to Systems Building is non-linear and uncertain. Many variables, including a firm’s core competency, committed leadership, competitive environment, suppliers, consumers (think Porter’s 5 Forces), impact the ability for a firm to embed sustainability into its core being.

Want to learn more?

SOI’s third stage “Systems Building” bears notable similarities to Frances Westley’s systems-based work on resilience and social innovation. Westley’s most recent article published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review explains how highly resilient systems support innovation creation.

For more on SOI, visit the Network for Business Sustainability, where you can find the research team’s full report on Innovating for Sustainability. Parallel and complementary cutting-edge research from the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility investigates the role of the Social Intrapreneur as “an extra force for sustainability.” These resources are just a handful of the many that are helping corporations integrate sustainability into their business strategy.


About the author: Devon Krainer is a recent graduate from the Richard Ivey School of Business. Currently working at Social Innovation Generation (SiG), Devon loves investigating and disseminating new ways for business to serve society. Start a conversation with Devon


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