Ecosystems, co-creation, platforms and other types of collaborations gain increasing attention as attractive ways of doing business. As a recent report by Innovation Leader shows, their potential value can be significant and diverse: cost reduction, a stronger position in the market, faster time to market, new ideas, more innovative products and services and so on. Along those lines, many organizations may want to join or build their own ecosystem or other type of collaborative business too. But how to do this purposefully?
There is an interesting paradox when developing an ecosystem. On the one hand you want to do this with a clear goal in mind. As the report by Innovation Leader shows, having clear goals in mind up front is seen as one of the key success factors by people having experience with ecosystems: “The one piece of advice we heard in most of our ecosystem interviews was to know what you’re aiming for—and how you will measure it.” This makes sense and is something we hear all the time: start with clear goals.
On the other hand, a key defining characteristic of an ecosystem is that it emerges, often in unpredictable ways. This applies to natural ecosystems—from which the term ecosystem is borrowed—but also to business ecosystems. Their very nature is that they don’t develop linearly towards a preset goal. Rather, they change with every participant that joins. This makes sense too. But it means that the goal of an ecosystem is constantly changing and that ecosystems serve different goals for different participants at the same time.
This makes the purposeful development of an ecosystem a challenge. To facilitate this challenge, I have been recently engaged in developing an approach for what we have called open collaborative business modelling. In a project together with the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and Amsterdam Smart City, we have developed a practical approach for multi-stakeholder collaborations that have the aim of setting up a collaborative business—an ecosystem, a networked business or co-creation.
A key part of that approach is defining the goals of the collaboration. The full report with the complete approach can be downloaded here (in Dutch). From this report and the Innovation Leader report combined, we can derive the following seven guidelines with respect to goals:
- Keep goals open. Even though you might want to start an ecosystem with a particular goal in mind, it is essential to remain flexible and adapt based on the goals of other stakeholders that will join. Only if their goals are incorporated too, they will show the commitment that is needed for a successful collaboration.
- Focus goals on value creation. An ecosystem’s main reason of existence is the value it creates for particular groups of customers. This value is what unites the various stakeholders and offers concrete guidance. Therefore, focus your goal-setting efforts on value creation rather than on generic growth targets or abstract mission statements.
- Start with vague goals. Trying to formulate SMART goals early on doesn’t work. It creates an artificial level of specificity and certainty and hinders productive collaboration. Keeping goals a bit high level in the beginning gives direction and at the same time leaves enough room for new insights and further specifying goals on the way.
- Be transparent about everyone’s goals. Every stakeholder has a particular stake. Being transparent about this from the start facilitates productive collaboration. People understand that every organization participates primarily out of self-interest. Making that self-interest explicit fosters productive dialogue and avoids surprises later on in the process.
- Accept and appreciate different goals. Ecosystems work because of the heterogeneity of organizations joining. While having a joint focus on value creation is essential for coherence, accepting and appreciating that everyone has different intentions is vital for commitment. Let all stakeholders have their own goals with the ecosystem.
- Focus on contribution too. Next to goals there are of course a host of other things to pay attention to when developing an ecosystem. For a complete overview, I gladly refer you to our report, but the primary thing next to goals is everyone’s contributions. Ecosystems—as well as any other form of collaboration—are only viable if everyone who benefits also contributes. Therefore, while co-creating your ecosystem in the direction of the emerging goals, keep an eye on whether everyone contributes at least as much as they gain.
- Don’t rush. Creating an ecosystem with different organizations together takes time. Not only because things are complex and finding the right goals takes time; also because collaborating requires knowing and trusting each other. As we have experienced during our research, trying to rush the process with a focus exclusively on content doesn’t work. Relationships need to develop too. So, take your time and accept that things may go slow initially.
As both reports show, goals are key, but they can’t be fully specified upfront—something emphasized in my previous article on Strategy Myth #3: Strategy Starts With Goals as well. Goals emerge in the course of time and they adapt based on the various stakeholders that come on board. Once you take that into account and resist the temptation to specify goals too early, too one-sidedly and too rigidly, you open up the way for developing goal-directed collaborations and ecosystems.
This post was published earlier here on my forbes.com page.
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