How to craft successful innovation partnerships: Five lessons from my PhD research

A recent report by BCG shows that rather than “doing it alone”, more than 80% of leading innovators succeed by innovating together with partners (Ringel et al., 2019). It’s also what we see with many of our clients at MTI². Co-creating value with partners - such as customers, firms, non-profits, universities, etc. - is an important success driver for innovation in both the public and private sector. Yet, such partnerships come with challenges. I decided to study two of them during my Ph.D.: (1) how to manage expectations and (2) how to design marketing communications in innovation partnerships? Let me try to synthesize five years of research, conducted with 30+ innovators on two innovation networks and four large-scale experiments in just under 1,000 words and five lessons.


1. Share your expectations right from the start

Communication about expectations is crucial for good collaboration. Organizations entering innovation partnerships should be aware of the fact that their expectations and those of others can be very different, and impact the interpretation of information and events throughout the innovation process. Mapping the expectations of the different partners may steer a more fruitful collaboration in an innovation network. In practice, organizations do talk about their outcome expectations, but expectations about practical aspects and relationships between partners (what do you expect to give to the network yourself and what do you expect to get from the partners?). They only talk about it in private conversations with other partners, not in group discussions. Most expectations thus remain unspoken. Making implicit expectations explicit early on in the process is advised, especially in regard to relational aspects of the collaboration, like role division. To facilitate the discussion, one could use a expectations canvas, in which partners summarize their expectations and can assess with which type of mindset they approach the partnership (see below).

Expectations canvas by Roosens, Lievens and Dens (2020)

2. Role ambiguity should be avoided

High uncertainty and ambiguity about roles is a factor that complicates collaboration. Extant research states that role ambiguity is negatively correlated with commitment and satisfaction in business networks. My research explains the role of conflict of expectations in this regard. When partners are unaware of their role and the role of others, they will use their own expectations to get an idea about the role division. This leads to conflicts that complicate collaboration. Indeed, the conflict between such relational expectations is a major reason for low trust, lower willingness to develop joint goals, and lack of open knowledge sharing. That’s why, at MTI², we provide extra attention to role expectations when for example facilitating innovation in public-private partnerships.

3. An orchestrator that manages expectations is key

Even before joining the team, my research convinced me of the need for independent partners like MTI² to facilitate innovation partnerships. Many partners may have an issue with explicitly talking about their expectations with others because they will share sensitive information with potential competitors. Moreover, one can argue that long discussions about process and relational expectations at the start (see lesson 1) will put too much emphasis on what can go wrong in the network, killing the motivation of many partners even before the network really started. A way to overcome these issues is to appoint an independent orchestrator that carefully analyzes the expectations of every partner individually, and integrates them into a comprehensible overview. The aggregate results can then be shared with all the partners involved, ensuring the anonymity of the individual partners’ expectations. Such analysis should help to flag potential points of conflict that our research and studies by other authors have highlighted as negatively impacting successful collaboration in a network. It can also bring out partners that report an ‘outlier expectation’. If the orchestrator feels this may lead to detrimental conflicts along the way, an individual discussion of this expectation with the particular partner can help to find the best solution for all partners.


4. One organization communicating about a partnership is good, all partners communicating is better

The selection of the right partners is important, as associations can transfer from one partner to the others. Building and maintaining strong associations requires continuous communication efforts from both the company and its partners. Interestingly, also in our case study research, few partners reported on reputational benefits as an outcome expectation of their involvement in an innovation network. Engaging in an innovation network can be of great interest though to build a credible and innovative brand or corporate identity. My experimental studies show that the benefits can further improve if organizations communicate properly about their innovation alliances. Earlier research shows the almost complete lack of reciprocal promotion between partners after collaborative innovation in practice. My research demonstrates that there is great potential for firms to increase purchase intentions and willingness to pay for their products/services if they communicate explicitly about their alliance partners and that they should engage their partner organizations to do the same.

5. People like strong collaboration between independent partners

When they informs customers about their collaborative innovation efforts, organizations should strongly emphasize cohesion, i.e., their close collaboration with their alliance partners. That is important because customers use the emphasis on strong collaboration as a sign for excellence in innovation. Nevertheless, organizations also need to signal their independent contributions, which helps customers form their own opinion about a partnership based on signals sent by different, independent sources. Firms and their partners can do this by sending out their own messages, complementing the messages of each other. Therefore, for instance when devising their press releases about innovation partnerships, firms should avoid copying the message content from other partners, like Google did with ADT for example recently.

In sum, I advise organizations in partnerships to communicate extensively about their expectations with their partners, and about the strong collaboration towards their customers. Do you want to know more about my research or how we apply some of the findings at MTI²? Let’s get in touch!