Could collaboration be the "carbon-free jet fuel" the sustainability community needs to propel forward at a faster rate? Collaboration was a major theme of the 2011 GreenBiz Innovation Forum (IF11), which I attended last week in San Francisco.
For many in the corporate world, collaboration is a “scary” concept especially for those with MBAs. Traditional corporate strategy curricula have stressed competition as the pathway to profitability using concepts such as game theory or two-party, zero sum games. Strategy tactics using the competition lens allow for only one winner who takes all after a stealthy battle that often involves “tit-for-tat” tactics (and millions in wasted dollars). The conventional wisdom was that if you tracked your opponent’s moves, you could begin to guess corporate behavior which would eventually lead to a set of micro-strategy preemptions or responses. This sounds exhausting.
There is still a time and a place for competition in business, however, many of the notable presenters at IF11 made the case for bucking conventional corporate strategy isolationism and taking the leap of faith toward collaboration. Not just for the sake of collaboration, but because it made good business sense.
When to collaborate
Hannah Jones, VP Sustainable Business and Innovation at Nike and Angela Nahikian, Director of Global Environmental Sustainability at Steelcase Inc. spoke about ways in which their companies have benefited from radical collaboration. Nike shared its supplier self-score card and high-tech material patents through GreenXchange in partnership with Creative Commons, an organization that enables sharing of IP across companies and individuals. For instance, Mountain Equipment Co-op, the largest co-op in Canada, thinks an eco-rubber that Nike uses to make biodegradable shoe outsoles would make great eco-inner¬tubes. Through the GreenXchange, Nike licenses its green rubber patent (for a fee) to Mountain Equipment Co-Op, who is able to reduce its carbon emissions, improve factory conditions and deliver a greener product to its consumers. Nike gets to take credit for its sustainable innovation while Mountain Equipment saves money by not reinventing the wheel.
Steelcase, the global leader in the office furniture industry, has collaborated with its competitors and used its post at the top of the industry to shape supplier standards and limit the use of fire retardants in their products. Steelcase benefits by ensuring an abundant supply of eco-friendly products in the supplier marketplace.
In both of these cases, it made sense to collaborate when the innovation was going to be “table stakes” – in other words, what it takes to have relevance in the marketplace, in a very short period of time. Hannah Jones cited this threshold as anything that will be “license to operate” within three years. At IF11 Jones pointed to an example where both Nike and Puma undertook separate redesign initiatives in order to make their shoe boxes more sustainable. Corrugated cardboard is Nike's single-largest material purchase. The Nike shoebox and its shipping carton account for half of the company’s packaging. In parallel, Puma spent three years and hired a design firm to create the “Clever Little Bag” shoebox. Both of these companies made advances on the same piece of the sustainability puzzle. But, a point of clarity emerges. In the words of Hannah Jones, “Nike and Puma will not be competing over shoeboxes.”
Instead of competing on shoeboxes, companies like Nike and Puma can conserve resources that would have gone toward a distraction like the shoebox and compete on what really matters –core competencies, unique differentiators and their true value proposition.
In a way, collaboration, as risky as it may seem, may allow you to be a better, faster competitor.
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