In the March issue of SEE Change Magazine, Mike Rowlands, wrote about the power of collaboration. He shared insights into the success of the Rainforest Solutions Project, a coalition formed by Greenpeace, the BC Sierra Club and ForestEthics, to fight the deforestation of BC’s Great Bear Rainforest. The article illustrates the power of collaboration to help social leaders solve complex problems.
Mike outlined four factors that help ensure collaborations are effective. These include: networking for results; honouring stakeholders; openly sharing knowledge; and navigating the socio-political context. I’d like to zoom in on factor three – openly sharing knowledge – in this month’s post.
On the Victoria Day Weekend, there was an article in the Sunday New York Times entitled, “Rolling up Their Sleeves, as a Team”. It’s a short case study of two clothing businesses, Ministry of Supply and Outlier, and how the leadership teams of both, who began as competitors, became collaborators instead. As we move beyond details about the cool bicycle-friendly work apparel each of the businesses sell, what emerges are some important lessons about the power of collaboration that we can all learn from, including how collaboration can help leaders build better solutions and better organizations.
Four heads are better than two
Both Ministry of Supply and Outlier are examples of organizations that leveraged knowledge sharing to drive better business solutions and products. For example, both organizations openly shared knowledge between leaders who first met as potential competitors, with the result being that new and better companies were formed. In the case of Ministry of Supply, the four partners were initially working as two pairs. By pooling their ideas and perspectives, they were able to quickly move beyond nearly identical yet competing business concepts, to build one company that uses high tech design to produce performance apparel (read: sweat-reducing) that looks good and is also gathering a popular following.
In the case of Outlier, the two founders, Abe Burmeister and Tyler Clemens, both bicycle commuters themselves, were separately working on concepts for bike-friendly clothing, one with shirts and the other pants. They met at their local coffee shop. After they shared information on fabrics and business concepts, they realized that they were looking at virtually the same solutions to meet the clothing needs of bike commuters. Rather than continue to go it alone, they teamed up to launch Outlier and went to market with two products (shirts and slacks) instead of just one.
Overcoming our protective instincts
According to the New York Times article, this kind of collaborative knowledge sharing and, ultimately, new and stronger partnerships, doesn’t actually happen very often, especially when founders are already invested in an idea. In explaining why, the article quotes Joseph Lassiter, chair of Harvard University’s Innovation Lab, who suggests that it’s kind of like the experience of having a baby. “Everybody wants to have a baby, but your baby is different than the other guy’s baby and you’re in love with it. You think the other guy’s baby isn’t as cute as yours.” In other words, just as parents do, we entrepreneurs become very protective (of our businesses).
So how do we move beyond this, as the two businesses profiled in the case study did? Reflecting on the article and also my personal experience as a social entrepreneur, I believe we’ve got to get a lot better at the kind of collaboration that helped both Outlier and Ministry of Supply. In many cases in the SE space (at least this is my personal experience), we’ve got multiple individuals and groups working to solve similar social problems. For example, job development in marginalized communities, mental health, and healthy food and food security, to name just a few.
On their own, many of these groups won’t develop a strong enough business model to be either viable or sustainable. Many of them won’t see the light of day. However, by following the examples of Outlier and Ministry of Supply and sharing knowledge and concepts, I believe the SE stats could be different. More social enterprises could not only see the light of day, but also have the capacity to grow and thrive. The challenge that I’ll throw out to capacity builders in the SE space is to get better at helping social entrepreneurs with this kind of collaboration. The challenge I’ll throw out to social entrepreneurs, myself included, is to not be so protective, and be more open to collaborating with others, even when you’ve gone past the idea stage. Just like the teams at Outlier and Ministry of Supply, you might find that the benefits far outweigh the control you’ll give up. For example, by collaborating, the duo behind Outlier went to market with two revenue streams, shirts and pants, instead of just one.
Leverage engaged stakeholders
As you think a bit more about collaboration, I’d like to make one more suggestion: consider collaboration tip #2 from Mike Rowlands, which is to honour your stakeholders. When it comes to collaboration for results, I’m suggesting you think about leveraging your stakeholders as well. In the Ministry of Supply case study, we learn that one of the product’s early adopters was Craig Breslow, a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. Last season, Breslow received one of the company’s dress shirts as a gift and decided to put the product’s technology to the test, taking one on the road with him. It stood up so well to his grueling post-game schedule that he not only bought another two, he also decided to invest $50,000 into the business.
What lessons can we social entrepreneurs take away from the Breslow story, in terms of collaborating with stakeholders? In the case of Mr. Breslow, his positive experience with the product led him to become an investor in the business. This stakeholder story can not only be used for marketing purposes, but also to gain additional investors. Connected stakeholders like Breslow can also be used to open doors for new partnerships and, as a professional athlete, he might even be tapped to help with future product development. You will likely come up with your own ideas for how to better leverage interested stakeholders. The point is that collaboration is a powerful tool and, while there’s already a lot of collaboration and sharing in the social enterprise space, we can still all get better at it.
Verity Dimock is currently working with Robert Patterson (www.earthbox.mx) on the launch of a Canadian social enterprise focused on local, sustainable food. Before shifting her career focus to social enterprise, Verity was the executive director of Smart Serve Ontario. She holds a Master’s degree from Boise State University (Instructional and Performance Technology) and a Bachelor’s degree from Trent University (Politics and Economics).
In addition to her social enterprise work, Verity teaches career development workshops and is an employment coach for students in the HVAC and Sustainable Energy Programs at Humber College. She tweets about her experience as a new social entrepreneur @SocentGirl.