Home Leadership How Uncommon Partners May Be the Secret to Breakthrough Innovation

How Uncommon Partners May Be the Secret to Breakthrough Innovation

by Guest Writter
Kyle Nel, Nathan Furr and Thomas Zoega Ramsoy, Authors, Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future

Guiding an organization through transformation is one of the hardest things that leaders are called on to do.

Among many variables, transformation requires both seeing new business opportunities, and then taking meaningful steps to capture them. But to do this effectively, organizations can’t always work alone.

As new technologies emerge and old industries converge, companies are finding that working independently to create the capabilities and technologies needed to enter a new industry is costly, risky, and even counterproductive.

Instead, organizations are beginning to take a new approach by collaborating with uncommon partners to co-create a different future together.

Uncommon partners are the types of organizations you might not normally work with, but which can help you create radical transformations. Specifically, uncommon partners can provide your organization with fresh insights and the necessary capabilities that you shouldn’t be building alone.

Companies such as Lowe’s, Samsung, Mastercard, and others are using this tactic to effectively discover new business opportunities and navigate uncertain territory. It’s also a key principle in our upcoming book, Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future, which we wrote to give leaders a new toolkit for making breakthrough change.

Let’s look at Lowe’s as an example of how an uncommon partnership helped galvanize a new future for the organization.

When Kyle Nel’s team at Lowe’s wanted to explore how Lowe’s could expand into the additive-manufacturing space, they began by searching for an uncommon partner to provide the capabilities they lacked. Unfortunately, the initial discussions with major 3-D printing companies proved to be disappointing.

Instead of wanting to form an uncommon partnership, many manufacturers kept trying to sell Lowe’s 3-D printers. But the vision that Kyle’s group had created by using science fiction to envision a new future for the organization (another principle we outline in the book) was not for vendors to sell Lowe’s a printer. It was to find a partner that would help Lowe’s build a new system—something that would allow customers to scan, manipulate, print, and eventually recycle additive-manufacturing objects.

Then, Carin Watson, EVP of learning & innovation at Singularity University, introduced Kyle to Made In Space. At the time, Made In Space was focusing on getting 3-D printing to work in space, where you can’t rely on gravity. The introduction set in motion an uncommon partnership where both parties truly understood what it meant to co-create a system together.

As uncommon partners, Made In Space and Lowe’s emerged with a bigger vision for additive manufacturing. Made In Space helped lay out an artifact trail that included not only creating the first printer on the International Space Station (ISS) but also developing a prototype recycling system that would recycle plastic into filament for 3D printers that could then be used to print new tools, which is a novel solution for plastic waste on Earth, as well as in space.

This new vision for an additive-manufacturing future didn’t end there. It also went on to reshape Made In Space’s trajectory. Today, some of the company’s bold projects include the Archinaut, a system that enables satellites to build themselves while in space, which was a direction that emerged partly from the science fiction narrative we created around additive manufacturing.

Helping Uncommon Partners Prosper

Working effectively with uncommon partners can require a shift from more familiar partnership relationships or outsourcing. When working with uncommon partners, you are trying to co-create the future, which entails a great deal more uncertainty.

Because you can’t specify outcomes precisely, agreements are typically less formal than in other types of relationships, and they operate under the provisions of shared vision and trust more than binding agreement clauses. Moreover, your goal isn’t to extract all the value from the relationship. Rather, you need to find a way to share the value.

Ultimately, working with uncommon partners should be transformative for both parties, so focus on creating a bigger pie together rather than on how you are going to slice up a smaller pie.

In today’s rapidly-changing business climate, we are certain of one thing: the future, as a fixed destination to be reached at some impending date, does not actually exist. We wrote Leading Transformation with this idea in mind, and to help leaders take charge of their organization’s future.

If someone is going to create the future, why not you?


About the Authors

Nathan Furr is a professor of strategy and innovation at INSEAD in Paris and a recognized expert in the fields of innovation and technology strategy. Furr earned his PhD at Stanford; he has published multiple books and articles in publications such as Harvard Business Review, MIT Sloan Management Review, Strategic Management Journal, Organization Science, and other respected journals. His most recent bestselling book, The Innovator’s Method (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014), won multiple awards in the business press. Nathan has worked with leading companies to study and implement transformation and innovation strategies, including Google, Amazon, Citi, and others. 

Kyle Nel is the CEO and cofounder of Uncommon Partners, a consulting and training firm specializing in business transformation. He is formerly the founder and executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs. Under his leadership, Lowe’s Innovation Labs has introduced projects including the Lowe’s Holoroom augmented and virtual reality design experience, the OSHbot autonomous retail service robot, and 3D scanning and printing services at retail, resulting in Lowe’s recent ranking as #1 in innovation on the Fortune 500. Nel was recognized on the 2015 Advertising Age 40 Under 40 list. 

Thomas Zoega Ramsoy is one of the leading experts on applied neuroscience and consumer neuroscience. He is the founder and CEO of Neurons Inc, a global innovation and tech company that helps companies, organizations and universities enable neuroscience tools and insights, including Google, Facebook, IKEA, Tesco, VISA, and Samsung. He lives near Copenhagen, Denmark. 

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