The Power of Collaboration in Business Success

COVID-19 has exposed the many fault lines in our society. At this critical juncture, how do we harness the potential of community response and collective behaviour to influence future recovery and long-term transformation?

The Rapid Relief Fund grant provided meals to children and their families through a partnership between the Victoria Foundation, the Good Food Network and the Food Rescue Project. Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet

Not so many years ago, Seattle-based Jessica Jobes was one of 3,000 engineers on a top-performing engineering team at Microsoft. Working collaboratively, the team ran 230,000 optimization tests per month, sharing test results and data. With this collaborative commitment to delivering excellence, the team raised its business growth consistently for 49 consecutive months.

“Can you imagine? Never a down month of growth in four years?” says Erin Athene, who is proud to now call Jobes her business partner in Mint CRO, a B.C.-based firm that specializes in conversion.

Microsoft knew what repeatable, scalable growth looked like, Athene explains. Equally important: the software giant understood that no single person, no matter how smart, could run all the tests, have all the ideas and analyze and process everything themself. To see that kind of growth, you’ve got to trust people to work together toward the best outcome for all.

This kind of transparency and collaboration is still relatively rare in business, with society slung to the opposite end of the spectrum. Although there are many exceptions, we’ve generally built our capitalist economy on a scaffolding of scarcity and mistrust, driven by a dog-eat-dog ethic.

The pandemic has neatly graphed the results: an inequitable distribution of resources, services and opportunities so severe that humans and our Earth are breaking.

A Sharing Economy

Moving away from the status quo requires adopting a new way of framing things. Big change requires big faith and trust that we can make the leap. It begins by dropping the scarcity mindset and onboarding the truth that there is enough for everyone. Deciding to work together instead of against each other is how we do it.

Focusing on uniqueness as a differentiator offers a way to stay in the game without needing to extinguish your rivals. “If you’re a business and you’re going to market, what’s your differentiator? Why your product over another product?” asks Shelley Voyer, program manager of W Venture, VIATEC’s accelerator for women-led companies.

“It’s not that both scarcity and abundance can’t exist, especially if you’re focused on what makes you unique. Can we change our mindset so that if you are unique, both can exist at the same time?”

“When you come from a perspective of abundance, collaboration is a natural outcome,” Athene says. “In contrast, a scarcity perspective motivates people to hoard their ideas, thinking they will be more effective if they compete with each other. But a scarcity perspective actually limits business growth: you’re only relying on your own learning, your own data, resources, brainpower, innovation and budget, as opposed to ‘leveraged learning’ through a collaborative ‘all boats rise’ approach.”

Taking notes from Jobes’s Microsoft experience, Mint CRO built a community that collaborates with its competitors. At Microsoft, Jobes collaborated within her team to improve Microsoft’s competitive advantage, but when training companies on Mint CRO methodologies, collaboration happens externally between companies.

As a result, client companies improve more than if they didn’t share their wins, failures and learnings. “Our client companies consistently achieve 5 to 25 times improvements on growth rates over industry averages,” Athene says of clients whose needs range from B2B services to marketing and ecommerce. “We have seen the power of collaboration directly result in tremendous acceleration of business growth and efficiency in generating customer leads and sales.”

The company’s elite Mastermind group starts every call asking “What did you learn this week? Any big wins, big fails?” Seven or eight participating clients share their screens, their data, their strategies and their results with each other. The group sees so many specific results that they quickly learn what’s working and what’s not. They move on to test approaches they know worked for another company, rather than testing randomly or unknowingly duplicating each other’s failures.

Structuring For Social Good

Recently, we’ve seen other B.C. companies moving in this direction, adopting more openness and transparency in the service of helping more people. In the early stages of the pandemic, Vancouver-based outdoor garment manufacturer Arc’teryx responded to a call for medical gowns by pooling its creative energies with local health authorities and manufacturing partners to develop a reusable medical gown.

“They’re making [the designs] available to anybody because they realize that it’s what’s needed in order for us to be able to support our frontline workers,” says Deirdre Campbell, managing director of Canada at Beattie Tartan Integrated Communications and a longtime collaborator in the tourism and hospitality sector. “And so why would I keep that to myself? Why would I not share it with my competition so more of it can be created?”

When schools closed in March, Greater Victoria School District 61 was looking to provide meals to children and their families. The Victoria Foundation bid for a grant from the Rapid Relief Fund to get fresh food into schools by building on existing partnerships with the Good Food Network and the Food Rescue Project.

“We were able to build on partnerships formed with restaurants like Zambri’s and Jones Bar-B-Que to actually get meals into the schools and reach the children and families,” says Carol Hall, director of strategic initiatives for the Victoria Foundation. “It’s a great example of how there were existing relationships in place that allowed businesses and nonprofits to act quickly and collectively in a really innovative way to make people in our community better off.”

Funding social agencies is the silver bullet to take us to a better place. “You see how civil society touches our everyday lives like seniors’ care, art classes for kids, the local theatre and all the arts programs and youth services and food programs,” says Hall. She cites data from a 2016 study done in partnership with the University of Victoria that showed an economic contribution of more than $4 billion and 60,000 jobs by the charitable sector in our region alone.

“The sector is so much a part of what makes our region home and special,” adds Hall. “As we think about a path forward, the civil society sector is really a critical part of that.”

Whether registering as a benefit corporation, or simply choosing to be a generative force, an organizational commitment to providing social good offers a better structure for supporting human well-being. “We have quite a few businesses that are socially focused, and that’s a real change,” says Voyer.

“We’re seeing a lot of movement toward challenging that kind of business model assumption that it’s just profit. It’s profit plus; these are entrepreneurs, and everyone wants to do well, but not at the expense of everything else, which is kind of the legacy we’re dealing with ”

Nurturing Collaborative Growth

Dallas Gislason, director of economic development with South Island Prosperity Partnership, suggests North Americans take a page from overseas and combine competencies across businesses. “That stuff has been going on in places like Europe for generations,” he says, citing examples of companies in one sector coming together to create joint-owned ventures for collaborative purchasing, investments in R&D or workforce training.

This lets companies pool the benefits of collaboration and apply it to their own businesses — much like Mint CRO’s approach. “It elevates all those competitors relative to their global competitors and makes them all better,” Gislason says.

“That’s what you see in Denmark. They’ll have the most productive meat processing facilities in the world because the competitors are actually collaborating with each other.

“Collaboration immediately increases the likelihood that we’re going to find the best solution together. And when I say collaboration, I mean intergovernmental, with academia,

with the citizens and the populace and NGOs and businesses, etc. We call it a triple-helix approach: public, private and third sector [NGOs]. If you bring all those parties together, you’re more likely to find solutions.”

Trisector strategist Peter Elkins, whose far-reaching solutions arise from that convergence of government, third sector and business, throws down the gauntlet on human greed. “No one needs more than ten million in the bank,” he says. “It is absolutely possible to have a fulfilling life without having billions of dollars locked up in the markets. Why not move money around in a way that lets everyone have a good life?”

That’s just what Elkins set out to do with Esca, an impact accelerator that shifts capital toward addressing our thorniest human issues. Esca represents a new way of innovative investing in Canada by scaling local businesses and funding a civil society. The accelerator onboards entrepreneurs with innovative ideas, plugging them in with experts who build their brands into profitable businesses.

The aim is to churn out benefit corporations that provide good employment to local economies and direct a percentage of top-line revenue into the not-for- profit sector as unrestricted funding.

“The reason we direct funds toward the charitable sector is because they’re doing the work society most desperately needs,” Elkins says. “With the accelerator model we’ve set out to solve three questions I kept hearing in communities across B.C. when I was serving on the B.C. government’s Emerging Economy Task Force: local investing, funding NGOs and housing.”

The impact accelerator addresses recommendations from the 2019 State of Innovation in BC report issued by Deloitte in partnership with the Province. These include creating incentives for small firms to scale and grow, commercializing ideas to get them into the market and speeding the delivery of projects that will have social impact. In addition, Elkins explains that the accelerator works in any sector, while satisfying investors with above market returns of eight per cent. Everyone wins.

Moving Forward Together

People flourish when they are looked after and when they’re engaged in looking after something bigger than themselves. “People are realizing we need each other to figure our way out of this,” says Campbell. “The understanding that we are all in this together has made people look around and say, ‘How can I help you?’ It’s almost like if you succeed, that means I can succeed, versus I want to succeed over you.”

There’s a corollary to this shift that is so beautiful it makes one’s breath catch. If we make the conscious choice to reorganize ourselves around a paradigm of collaboration, we might be able to properly address the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which, without a collaborative mindset, are nothing but a depressingly hopeless target. Pair the goals with a serious, collective intention to focus on lifting every human into a place of worth and well-being, and we might have a chance.

“[There’s] this bold, ambitious target for 2030 around really big, intractable issues like climate change, hunger, poverty and inequality,” says Hall. “All of these issues are interconnected, and we can’t solve any one on its own – it really requires us to work collectively and differently together. I think that’s what each of us can ask: What do we need to do to leave no one behind?”

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