Issue 1.6 | November 2009

In this Article: How shared purpose and shared insight generate a higher return-on-investment in collaboration.

By Jonathan Wilson

Two-and-a-half centuries ago, a ship full of European sailors of rather questionable ethics came to grief on the rocky shores of a South Sea island.  A dozen survived.  Within a week, six were left.  Their fellow sailors – cruel but also clueless – had, upon attempting to violate the wives of local villagers, been captured, tortured and killed by the offended husbands and brothers of these wives.  Worst for the remaining sailors was the fact that the island’s residents then proceeded to cook and eat the deceased sailors.  Not long afterwards, a slew of indigenous warriors suddenly became extremely sickly, and most suffered a painful demise.  The sailors had infected them with smallpox, to which the locals had not the slightest immunity.  In short order, both the sailors and the tribes-people had a shared purpose: remove the Europeans safely from the island in a manner that ensured minimal contact between the respective parties.

One can imagine how this compelling purpose led to the rapid innovation between islanders and foreigners of a means for effective communication and cooperation that in turn enabled them to develop a joint solution that fully met their respective requirements.

While this was in fact a less-than-ideal basis for collaboration (a collaboration built on trust is exponentially more powerful than one without trust, as my last article showed), I tell this fictional but historically possible story* to make two vital points:

1. An effective collaboration begins because the partners involved have a shared purpose.  In a collaboration, partners are after a single solution to potentially diverse and not necessarily shared problems.  If the purpose is not shared, the partners will end up pulling in different directions.

2. For a collaboration to succeed, there has to be significant shared benefit.  The stakes have to be high for everyone involved.  If not, the collaboration will be mediocre or even unsuccessful, because the partners will not be sufficiently engaged.

But while there must be an equivalent return on investment (ROI) for each partner, the ROI may not be identical.  In many partnership negotiations, there is an unspoken assumption that the primary motivator for partnership is financial.  As a result, negotiations tend to revolve around numbers. This can unnecessarily bog down negotiation and even prevent a potentially powerful collaboration from getting off the ground.

In truth, the ROI for each partner may be very different, because they may be attempting to resolve mutually exclusive problems: for one, it might be acquiring new product to sell, for another it might be intellectual property to enhance in-company processes and for another it might simply be an immediate financial gain to mitigate cash flow problems.  What matters is that the ROI be significant for all – it must matter to every partner that the collaboration succeed.

Collaboration is powerful, but only when you and your partners have clearly defined what you’re after and why it matters to each of you.

(*Note: 18th and 19th century sailors did indeed bring smallpox to South Sea cannibals.  No collaboration arose, however.  As happens today, the competitive instinct overwhelmed any other consideration and the result was that many explorers, sailors and tribes-people lost their lives in tragic circumstances).

Getting Past Numbers to the Real ROI: The Importance of Insight

In their book Negotiation Genius, Harvard Business School professors Deepak Malhotra and Max H. Bazerman tell a story that bears out the importance of insight to collaboration (p.83-84).  A US based Fortune 500 company sought to obtain exclusive rights to a European company’s health-care product ingredient.  In the interests of competitive advantage, they wanted to make it impossible for their competition to have access to this ingredient.  The supplier balked at the terms and refused to grant exclusive rights.  The US company’s negotiation team then worked hard to make it attractive for the European company to be locked into one buyer.  Despite improving terms and significantly increasing price, they experienced both surprise and frustration at the seller’s refusal to budge.

As Malhotra and Bazerman tell it, an executive called Chris was flown in to attempt to break the impasse.  He asked the one question no-one else had asked: “why?”  Instantly, the supplier revealed that an exclusive agreement would “violate” his agreement with his cousin to supply him with a small amount of the ingredient per year.  In no time, the negotiations changed course and buyer and supplier left with an agreement that was significant in value to both parties: the US company had exclusive access to the product they coveted with the un-problematic exception of the European owner’s cousin (who sold his product to a small local market).

To get past numbers to the real ROI in a collaboration, you have to get beyond “what” to “why”.  Insight – understanding the “why” – is something that will only flow out of time spent listening to the other party explain how their world works, what is important to them, and why.  Acting on assumptions destroys trust.  Caution breeds caution: a defensive partner will not be a helpful partner.

In contrast, developing understanding builds trust.   The more existing or prospective partners sense your genuine interest in their interests, the less likely that you will have to read between the lines to get the insight you need.  Successful collaborations require a shared purpose and a shared ROI: shared insight makes both not just possible, but powerful.

Another soul insight from