Better together? How to work with social innovators without losing your corporate cool

Have you started working on a project with a fantastic social innovator, only to discover that none of the logical steps to starting up a business seem to be in place? Did you read through their business plan last week, only to discover that it’s been torn up and the whole direction of the organisation has changed in an incomprehensible wink? Does their ambition inspire you but the reality of working together grind you down?

You’re not alone.

At Matter&Co we love to bring big corporates and social innovators together. I’ve worked with both Deloitte and RBS on their social enterprise programmes and seen these kinds of relationships both flourish and fail. Working with someone from a different business culture can be a baffling experience and downright frustrating at times. But we all agree that the whole is greater than the sum of the two parts, right?

Over the past year, I’ve also had the privilege to hear from some of the top thinkers on the struggles and successes of collaboration, at events such as Sustainable Brands ’15 and Unilever’s Power of Partnership event. So here are Matter&Co’s three (and a half) lessons on how to ensure your corporate collaborations with social entrepreneurs are truly catalytic – rather than catastrophic:

 

1. Deal with the difference

Acknowledge the differences in your style openly and realise that it’s ok that you work in different ways. Some people are really efficient organisers and good at managing risk, some people have brilliant imaginations and are great at throwing caution to the wind and fighting off the naysayers. The world needs both profiles, and often a combination of these can be really fruitful.

“Really disruptive ideas do not come from big companies,” says Jeremy Basset who runs Unilver’s Foundry programme. “You can buy them or try to copy them, but corporate culture just isn’t exciting or the best place for this kind of work. Corporates need to be prepared to be inspired, to give room for the unknown to develop.” On the flip side, innovators need to learn the language of corporates and accept the incremental pace of change. Working with big companies can be stretching for small start-ups. Collaborating requires a great deal of patience. “It’s like a dance - you have to find the rhythm,” says Mexican social innovator Gina Badenoch.

2. Do the things that aren’t being done

Ever come away from a meeting thinking, “I can’t believe they haven’t even done X/ Y/ Z!”?  The things that you spot that aren’t being done, might well be the things that you are brilliant at doing. Innovators and entrepreneurs are ideas people, they are not easy to manage and process drives them crazy. It’s highly likely there will be some gaps in their plans for delivery. Consider stepping in and offering to take on the ‘obvious’ things that you are gobsmacked to find missing; whether that’s creating a project plan with milestones and deadlines or doing some market research. This is where you can shine.

“Ideas are not valuable,” says Sofus Midtgaard, from Launch Nordic. “The people willing to stand up, fight for them, find the right connections to make them happen are valuable.” Corporates can bring both structure and great contacts, both of which are vital in helping ideas to get off, and stay off the ground. 

3. Remember why you wanted to work together in the first place

Once you embark on a project, it’s easy to get bogged down in details and the frustrations of what isn’t working, so make sure you look up to the horizon from time to time. It’s likely that you both started on this journey together because you have a particular shared goal and believe that social innovation is a great way to approach the problem. “Defining social purpose is difficult but critical,” says Badenoch. Once you’ve agreed on the direction of travel, you may have bumps in the road but if the end-goal is clear and the desire to get there is mutual then you’ll get there. 

You probably also hoped that you’d learn something from each other, but may be regretting the notion! We all love the idea of diversity but experience tells us that often it’s much easier and quicker to collaborate with people that are like you - working in the space between is hard. Diverse teams get better results, but diverse teams will also experience more conflict. “Play judo not boxing, use the weight of your opponent against them,” advises Badenoch. 

 

Keep these things in mind and you should get beyond the frustrations and enjoy working together. It might not be easy, but the experience will likely challenge your thinking, and enable you to do great things that you simply wouldn’t be able to do alone.

And finally, don’t forget to say thank you – but don’t expect to be showered with praise. Too often when corporates and social innovators come together, everyone thinks they are doing the other a massive favour. True collaboration means that you give and you get – acknowledge what the other party has taught you and given you, whether that’s hard cash, precious time, expertise or just an attitude.

If they’ve inspired you, which they probably will have – tell them.

 

Need some more lessons? Then watch the film we made for Deloitte on their 10 Steps to a Successful Social Innovation Programme

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