A big part of innovation is managing uncertainty. Balancing the real-world challenges of the short-term and long-term pressures, priorities and opportunities in the business.
For an innovation function operating in a large corporate, this often translates to showing return in the short-term so it can justify its existence for the long-term where the bigger, more ambitious projects should come to fruition. This is where a portfolio approach can come in to play; a collection of projects that promise value now, giving scope to explore the opportunities on the horizon for later.
Where collaboration is at the heart of the innovation strategy - either collaboration with external partners like startups, or between internal divisions that might not normally work closely together - how you collaborate has a crucial role to play in planning the portfolio structure and determining your investment outcomes.
Collaboration can take many forms. The option you choose will depend on the outcome you want to achieve and the maturity of the teams involved. Judging the maturity is important. Transactional activities like events (such as hackathons) or business support (like accelerator programmes) provide a great way to establish new relationships and develop concepts for new products or business models within some clear project parameters that the corporate might then look to purchase or the partners co-develop further. Co-creation can involve product co-development, the launch of a joint venture or corporate venture capital investment in a promising business. Partners that collaborate around a mature product proposition might co-operate via a distribution or joint marketing agreement, or agree a licencing deal. Integration means the complete acquisition of one company by the other, or the merger of two or more units in the organisation to create a whole new function.
No form of collaboration is superior to any other. A relationship that begins in one quadrant may well move or splinter into several different projects as the idea in development evolves. The important thing is judging the right form of collaboration for the goals you want to achieve, the resources you have available, timescales to which you can commit and the maturity of the companies involved.
To give an example, a large technology company discovered an emerging startup with a potential breakthrough technology in the networks space. The company's first instinct was to make an acquisition; the startup's IP promised a great deal of value and if they didn't act first a rival might move in. But an acquisition would be risky. The startup's technology, management team, ways of working and product proposition were still very 'raw'. Its potential lay in the chemistry and drive of its founding team. Acquisition and integration into a global technology company risked disrupting that formula and destroying the value the company had spotted in the first place.
The startup needed time, space and some guidance to develop. Instead of attempting an acquisition, the company instead offered some support to the startup, establishing a relationship and building trust. As its technology proposition matured, they then shifted into a co-creational relationship where they could look more strategically at how the startup's technology could integrate with its partner's existing product portfolio, then scale to create a new source of revenue.
Applying a portfolio approach helps make sure your innovation activity is balanced in terms of value delivery. It also gives a framework to help you decide the best way to engage with partners and reach the outcome you want to achieve, based on where you are today. Fundamentally, collaboration is about trust. Starting the relationship with a clear appreciation of your strengths, areas for development and compatibility, gives a great basis to create the trust needed for the partnership to grow.