Is failing fast the best way to collaborate?

Some tools to boost your ability to partner effectively

By Richard Crespin

Fail fast. Fail forward. That’s the latest advice from Silicon Valley’s startups. But if you work in a large institution, “fail” is a four letter word. Even if your corporate culture respects smart failure, when you collaborate with partners from the public or civil sector, their cultures may not. We can, though, adapt these startup techniques to form more effective public- private-civil partnerships by doing three things: start with data, recruit strange bedfellows, and co-create.

Start with data. Problems that need public-private-civil collaboration are messy. They don’t have easy-to-understand causes and no one party can solve them on their own. But we crave simplicity, so attempts to solve these problems usually devolve into a witch-hunt or a search for silver bullets. Data is the antidote to blame and over-simplification. Find a diverse set of well-respected experts to present the facts. If the facts don’t exist, investing in research becomes your collaboration’s first job.

Recruit strange bedfellows. We’re working to improve honey bee health by assembling a coalition of beekeepers, agribusinesses, growers, food companies, conservationists, and local, state, and federal governments because the causes and solutions aren’t “owned” by any one of them and will require all of them to work together. It can be uncomfortable at times to have organizations that regularly criticize one another in the same room, but it’s necessary to make real progress — and it’s also why data is so important. It helps to depersonalize and depoliticize the discussion and keep everyone focused.

Co-create defined experiments. Don’t try to solve climate change. That’s too big. Addressing the impact of extreme weather events in the desert southwest–that you can get your arms around. Lean startups, like the ones Eric Reis describes in his book, come up with a “minimum viable product”: the minimum you need to know to go out and start selling. Develop a “minimum viable partnership”: the minimum you need to know to go out and start collaborating. Then develop a set of testable propositions — specific experiments, backed by data and agreed upon by your strange bedfellows — that you can launch together. Instead of “failing fast” try “rapid experimentation.” Lean startups use a Business Model Canvas, a comprehensive one-page business plan. Come up with your own Partner Model Canvas, a comprehensive one-page partnership plan documenting the issue you’ve all agreed to tackle, for whom you’re trying to solve it, and how you’ll test whether or not your succeeding.

Two upcoming events will explore collaboration in depth. On May 2nd-3rd, at the Office Depot Foundation’s Civil Society Leadership Symposium I’ll lead an interactive workshop on the CollaborateUp method, an accelerator for public-private partnerships in social innovation. On May 6th in Washington, DC at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Sustainability Symposium, the Environmental Defense Fund’s Brendan FitzSimons, Dow’s Eunice Heath, GE’s Anne Klee, Keurig Green Mountain’s Monique Oxender, and SustainAbility’s Chris Guenther will discuss “Sustainability and the Return on Collaboration.”

We’ve also developed a set of open-sourced CollaborateUp tools to help with accelerating public-private-civil collaborations and rapid experimentation. I’ll send them to you for free. I’ve also got discounted/free passes to these events. Just send a tweet to @rjcrespin or email me: richard@

Richard Crespin is CEO of CollaborateUp, 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 April 27, 2014 in 25115