Why?

Model AidPods in a Coca-Cola crate
The potential of Unlikely Alliances – using the unused space in Coca-Cola crates to carry simple medicines in Africa – the ColaLife project

It is generally accepted that if you take any large company or sector, you find that innovation happens at the ‘edges’ of that company or sector.

Edges tend to attract risk-takers so there are a lot of people on the edge who are not only open to ideas, but more willing to act on them, even if they haven’t been tested yet. At the same time, there are few entrenched interests or legacy assets on the edge, so there are few resistance points ready to impede those who want to try something different. There’s less inertia on the edge (Hagel, 2008).

If you accept this observation then just imagine what happens when the edges of different sectors overlap. Imagine the potential for innovation there. Interestingly, this is precisely the place where Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) will start in their initial phase.

A second point is that within a sector or organisation, certainly at the core, there is also ‘sector blindness’, that is a lack of ability to see alternative ways of doing things or an inability to ‘think outside of the box’. PPPs expose those working in one sector to different ways of thinking and of doing things, which is crucial in the innovation process.

Most of the PPPs we are aware of are initiated from the public sector and start from the perspective that the private sector is somehow ‘better’ or ‘more efficient’ that the public sector and that there is a lot to be gained by the public sector adopting private sector approaches.

However, we think that this misses the real point and that is that both sectors can learn from each other and are better when they work together and both can benefit from the process. PPPs should not be based on the notion that it’s the private sector helping out the beleaguered public sector.

And finally, there are situations when PPPs are the only way forward. Where there is no other option. Let’s take ColaLife as an example. For decades the public and NGO sectors have struggled with the issue of ‘last mile’ drug distribution while the private sector has shown their ability to get fast-moving consumable goods to the remotest communities. There must be lessons that the public sector can learn from the private sector in this area even if the approaches and processes are not directly transferable. The ColaLife Business Model would not work without people from the public, private and NGO sectors working together.

We work to help create unlikely alliances because we have seen the huge return on investment of doing so. The potential for inspiration, innovation and increases in efficiency is enormous if you can create the conditions that enable organisations to come together on equal terms in non-threatening circumstances.

Another way to convey why we think unlikely alliances are important is through a series of quotations from people we admire.

The way we see the problem is the problem.
Stephen R. Covey

BUSINESS AS UNUSUAL: In mature consumer societies, companies will have to do more than just embrace the notion of being a good corporate citizen. To truly prosper, they will have to ‘move with the culture’. This may mean displaying greater transparency and honesty, or having conversations as opposed to one-way advertising, or championing collaboration instead of an us-them mentality. Or, it could be intrinsically about generosity versus greed, or being a bit edgy and daring as opposed to safe and bland.
Source: Trendwatching 2010 predictions

Thinking about how your business would be run differently by someone from another industry is a great way to generate creative ideas and discover new insights. Disney, in fact, has created a thriving side business of consulting with other businesses to teach them The Disney Way of customer service – in short, how to treat people like guests when they come to your theme park.
Tom Stevens, 2007, Edge of the Box Thinking

Just as we thought we knew what organisations were for, we thought we knew what consumers were for. They were the consummation of the production process, the final link in the value chain… raw materials came in at one end to be worked on by labour and machinery and finished products left at the other end to be bought by consumers…. But these orderly value chains are now being scrambled up, and, as a result, some consumers, in some areas of the economy, are playing very different roles. They are no longer passive recipients of goods delivered to them; they want to be participants in the creation of services they want.
Charles Leadbetter, We Think

Loosely coordinated groups can now achieve things that were previously out of reach for any other organisational structure.
Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody

Established conventions and ways of thinking create “associative barriers” that inhibit innovative thinking in any given field of endeavour. The perspective of another field or industry, however, does not carry the same thinking conventions and associations.
Tom Stevens, 2007, Edge of the Box Thinking

When you step into an intersection of fields, disciplines, or cultures, you can combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary new ideas…. We, too, can create the Medici Effect. We can ignite this explosion of extraordinary ideas and take advantage of it as individuals, as teams, and as organizations. We can do it by bringing together different disciplines and cultures and searching for the places where they connect.
Frans Johansson, The Medici Effect

In today’s knowledge-based world, useful innovation typically arises out of combining core competencies with ideas taken from places outside of your industry or field, but not so far out as to be inaccessible…The most likely place to find useful innovation and creative insight is at the edge, where your professional discipline, company boundaries, or industry knowledge intersect with some outside arena or field.
Tom Stevens, 2007, Edge of the Box Thinking


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