Build a Winning Team With the Right Co‑Innovation Partner

May 6, 2021 | Les Winograd

It's often said that players don't win championships, teams do.

You can compile a roster of all-star players, but if they don't share the same vision, have complementary skills, trust each other, and gel with good chemistry, it's a recipe for wasted talent and unmet expectations.

Similarly, when it comes to competing and winning in the business world, cultivating a strong partnership between client and partner is crucial, and collaboration is key.

The term "partner" is often thrown around casually in business. Sometimes it's used as a polite substitute for "vendor" or "contractor" or even "consultant." But vendors, contractors, and consultants are not the kind of partner who will help guide your organization to compete and win in the digital age.

We prefer the term "co-innovation partner," or a partner who has a deep understanding of your business objectives and the problems to solve and helps from both a strategy and execution perspective.

We often focus on the "innovation" aspect of "co-innovation," but the "co" (or "collaborative") part is half of the equation and just as important when it comes to digital innovation and transformative results.

The stakes are higher than ever—selecting the wrong partner can waste valuable time and money while your competition catches up or furthers their lead.

So what should you look for when seeking a co-innovation partner to help you compete and win in the arena of digital transformation? Following the tips in this "playbook" should give you a leg up on your competition.

Assembling the Right Team

In the Co-Innovation Manifesto, which outlines the challenges businesses face and ways to accelerate innovation with strategic partners, Bill of Rights #6 states: "You have a right to a talented team of A-players."

This is absolutely true, but to first take a step back, how can you determine if a prospective partner knows how to assemble a team of the right "A-players?"

Ask how they plan to build their team roster if they win your business, and keep in mind there's no one formula to follow when it comes to building the right team.

The components that make up a "talented team of A-players" should never be the same from team to team or client to client, and compiling a team should not be based on skill sets alone (although having the necessary skills is a prerequisite).

Sometimes the right teammate has worked on a similar design or technical challenge or has been in a niche industry for many years. Other times it's someone who has passion for a particular industry, or a person who has never worked in a specific industry before but brings an outside perspective on how relevant business challenges are handled in another industry.

Still more to consider, we seek out diverse individuals with attributes that benefit a team environment, with traits like positivity, empathy, creativity, and who embrace a fundamental commitment to partnering for success. 

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The point isn't that any one of these considerations is the right, or only, avenue.

The point is that the right partner can walk you through their game plan for thoughtfully assembling the right team for you. Specifically you.

But if there is one universal truism, it's that teams love to win, and winning teams love what they do.

Alignment to Objectives

In sports, the overarching goal is clear–win the championship. The steps required to win the championship are simple—outwork and beat the competition.

But in the business world, it is common for teams to focus on short-term goals and wins without a clear understanding of how those wins help the company achieve its overarching goals. "Winning" is typically defined as beating competitors with similar products and services who are fighting against you for a niche set of customers.

When embarking on an innovation initiative, it is crucial to follow Stephen Covey's "Begin with the end in mind" principle to ensure everyone is aligned to the bigger picture corporate goals this initiative will help achieve. 

Only then can a team begin to lay out their detailed roadmap for success.

Often, business partners are so eager to begin a new client relationship that they schedule a project kickoff meeting that dives headfirst into the plan for delivering all the minutia documented in the Statement of Work. We've been there too, and sometimes that's just how a project goes. 

Ideally, though, every new relationship should be launched by first understanding the key business objectives and challenges faced by client partners and how successful achievement of those objectives will be measured. John Doerr's OKR framework is a valuable tool for capturing this information. From there, we can tie back the project or initiative to the overarching objective.

Once all team members, clients, and partners are aligned on a shared vision of success, it's then time to move on to a detailed game plan. It's important to not only establish what the group is going to create together, but also how the whole picture will come together and why a problem needs to be solved in the first place.

Ask yourself: Does your prospective partner talk about achieving outcomes or producing deliverables? Do they relish the opportunity to measure progress against business objectives, or are they skittish about keeping score?

Cultural Fit

While it's true that if you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there; merely knowing where you're going doesn't guarantee you'll actually get there.

Teams should be aligned not only on their objectives, but also shared values.

Almost nothing matters more than shared values and cultural fit when choosing the right co-innovation partner.

At Bounteous, we've found transparency, collaboration, learning and growth orientation, accountability, and achievement orientation to be the most essential values for ensuring a winning cultural fit between clients and partners.

Transparency is a prerequisite to trust, and trust is a prerequisite to a long-lasting, high-performing, successful partnership. True partners feel they have nothing to hide from each other because there are no ulterior motives. They share mutual goals and an unencumbered flow of information, ideas, and suggestions.

Teams that share a passion for intellectual curiosity are most likely to learn from each other, explore expanded solution sets, and push boundaries when innovating.

Teammates who hold themselves and each other accountable for their contribution to team success forge a trusted bond that helps them overcome inevitable challenges along the innovation journey.

Companies that have established a culture of excellence, high standards, and a focus on continual innovation tend to demand the same of their partners. Team members who are respected as thought leaders and have a track record of winning awards tend to bring similar recognition and accolades to those around them.

Winners like to work alongside winners, and the culture is contagious.

So ask yourself: How do your organization's values align with your consultancy's values? Are you discussing business value versus project results?

The "Co" in Co-Innovation

The prefix "co" means together, joint, and mutual. A co-innovation partner is unequivocally an equal partner working together with you to jointly achieve mutual success.

In sports, there's no such thing as the offense winning while the defense loses. The whole team wins or loses together.

And when it comes to innovation, business partners need to truly believe they are a part of a single, homogeneous team where there is only one definition of success, and that's co-success.

Teammates who listen to each other's ideas, celebrate each other's successes, admit to and learn from their mistakes, and don't pretend to have all the answers themselves are partners who embrace the meaning of collaboration and reap the rewards of doing so.

For those who have never experienced this type of strategic relationship, I like to relate a story that occurred a couple of years ago, involving one of my longest and deepest client relationships.

This client was approached by Google with a request to speak at an upcoming industry conference to share the secrets of their digital transformation success.

My client called to tell me he would only accept the invitation under one condition; that my team shares the stage since their success would not have been possible without our partnership.

We co-presented the innovation story, and as we shared our thoughts on the "keys to success," the one item that overlapped on each of our lists was "finding the right partner."

When evaluating a potential partner, ask yourself if you can envision yourself and that partner in the scenario above in one, five, and even ten years into the future.

The Right Fit

According to Michael Gale, author of The Digital Helix, 84 percent of corporate digital transformation efforts do not live up to expectations. Choosing the right innovation partner could determine whether you are on the winning or losing end of this equation.

Can you ever guarantee whether a potential partner is a right fit for you?

Of course not.

But my guess is that even teams who start the season as a dark horse are not surprised when they go on to win the championship. Why? Because they are confident they have the right talent, unambiguous alignment on goals, a superior culture, and selfless commitment to the team.

Similarly, business executives seeking the right partner to help them win the digital innovation game need a strong vision and playbook in order to achieve success.