A new paradigm for fomenting public-private partnerships.

 By Richard Crespin

Neanderthals, once regarded as the bigger, dumber, slower precursor of Homo sapiens, might actually have been stronger, smarter, and faster than us. But after Homo sapiens encroached, Neanderthal eventually died out. The running theory: while smaller in body and brain, Homo sapiens out-collaborated the hermetic Neanderthal.

On December 17th, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, went to his municipal office and lit himself on fire. Social media lit up and within hours protests broke out across the region. People around the world knew about Bouazizi’s act almost as it was happening. Not only did people know about it, they reacted on a grand scale. Within months the Arab Spring was in full bloom, and long-reigning autocrats tottered or toppled.

These are both examples of network effects: the more nodes on a network and the more interconnected the nodes, the greater the potential impact. The primary difference between Neolithic collaboration and 21st Century collaboration is the ease of visualizing, communicating, and activating our networks.

As a result of these improvements, it’s also easier to rapidly prototype new ideas. “StartUp Weekends” have become all the rage in entrepreneurial circles, because they reduce the time it takes to go from idea to business plan to product. But what really makes StartUp Weekends work are the networks that allow the entrepreneur to develop a “minimum viable product,” have the market test it, and rapidly iterate on it. In the old days, entrepreneurs didn’t want business plan development to drag on, but without the Internet, global logistics, social media, etc., it was impossible to accelerate the cycle much.

The same is true for public-private-civil partnerships that address environmental, social, and governance (ESG) challenges. In an earlier column, I characterized these partnerships as part of “corporate responsibility 3.0,” where companies share responsibility with a network of partners and work with the network to create solutions and outcomes leading to greater financial and social net worth. These types of collaborations used to take months or years to develop. Network effects make it possible to rapidly prototype these collaborations using a “minimum viable partnership” model.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Business Civic Leadership Center (BCLC)–itself a network of nearly 150 leading corporations– provides an example of how to quickly visualize and activate a network. BCLC’s Business for Good Map catalogues the relationships between companies and the organizations with which they work.
BCLC’s network revolves around three zones: a Small World network, a group of Vital Connectors, and a set of Isolates. If you want to test something with a large number of companies in the BCLC network, get it in the hands of Vital Connectors.

But what if you’re not already engaged with Vital Connectors? Or what if you’re trying to create new, or strengthen weak, connections between parties that don’t normally work well together?

Earlier this year, I had the privilege to help organize a first-of-its-kind Honey Bee Health Summit, a collaboration of the Monsanto Honey Bee Advisory Council and Project Apis m., at Monsanto’s Chesterfield Village Research Center. The summit used a Grass Tops approach to invite more than a hundred of the most influential people and organizations with a vested interest in the health of honey bees. The purpose of the summit: listen, engage and inundate the delegates with science.

Before the summit, the various players had differing theories and no real consensus existed on what caused declining bee health in general and colony collapse disorder specifically. The summit created a much stronger consensus about the handful of the most likely causes. The delegates have now returned to their organizations to think about what they can do to move the needle on these causes. Moreover, Monsanto committed to reconvening the participants this fall.

These examples outline what I call the CollaborateUp Method for rapidly prototyping public-private-civil partnerships. Step one: use a visualization technique similar to the BCLC Business for Good Map to identify the stakeholder community and to focus on the Vital Connectors. Step two: convene the Grass Tops and Vital Connectors in an intensive MashUp session to get everyone on the same page about the facts and send them back with a homework assignment to determine if and how they might collaborate on specific problems and what assets and resources they bring to the table. Step three: reconvene a coalition for an intensive PartnerUp session to develop minimum viable partnerships.

To learn more about these methods, I hope you’ll join me at the COMMIT!Forum on October 8th in New York City and/or at the BCLC’s CSR Conference on October 9th – 11th in Washington, DC.

Richard J. Crespin is the CEO of Crespin Enterprises, a senior fellow for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and the director of business outreach for the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition.
Posted October 2, 2013 in 25115