Over the past two years, Fourth Economy has provided project management for a number of clients and projects. The common theme for all of these projects is “collaboration.” Economic development is increasingly a collaborative enterprise. Economies don’t fit neatly into our administrative and jurisdictional silos. As a result, economic development requires working with a variety of partners. So it is no surprise that a lot of the work we do as consultants includes organizing and coordinating collaborative partnerships.
A good example is the TechBelt Initiative, a network of more than 30 technology and innovation organizations who perceived the value of a collaboration to accelerate economic growth within the Northeast Ohio, Western Pennsylvania and Northern West Virginia region. The members are broad-based, representing the region’s technology-related economic development organizations, foundations, researcher institutions and chambers of commerce.
In one sense, TechBelt functions as a collaboration incubator. TechBelt provides an infrastructure of communication and trust that enables the network to rapidly identify and generate collaborative projects that leverage our combined assets and expertise. The reality of how we do it is unfortunately unglamorous. It involves a lot of meetings with a lot of talking interspersed with games such as phone tag, email pong, tail chasing, cat herding and a Gordian knot of logistics. It may have even appeared unproductive for long stretches of time but we will soon see how that appearance can be deceptive.
Recently, TechBelt had its biggest win with the award of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII). The proposal included 83 regional partners. TechBelt organized a partnership that secured $39 million in matching funds (required $30M), with $18 million from 44 large and small firm industry partners to match the federal investment of $30 million. Our proposal beat out a dozen others – including MIT and Georgia Tech – for a $69 million investment to stimulate a revolution in American manufacturing.
Until the success of NAMII, the TechBelt partners spent a lot of time finding out what wouldn’t work or what they did not want to do. We had some small successes but also a number of large and small defeats and an even larger number of opportunities that were assessed and rejected because they lacked potential, failed to draw interest, or did not align with our capabilities. The saving grace was that as a group the investment of time and resources by any one partner was small relative to the gains and losses achieved.
Many of the partners also understood that the time we were investing wasn’t just for one specific prize or project. We were investing time to build relationships and reputations. Many of the partners also realized that working together enabled the individual organizations to compete for new opportunities that were previously out of reach. Over time, we got better at screening out “collaboration” that tried to split small pies and figured out how to focus on larger opportunities of regional significance. We also learned a lot from our mistakes and failures along the way that boil down to four simple lessons.
It takes a lot of talking. Not all of that talking is productive in the sense that it yields immediate benefits, but it is productive as long as someone is listening.
It takes a lot of time and therefore patience for effective collaboration. You may not always like what the group is talking about or the direction it is heading, but it is important to stay at the table and try something. If that attempt does not succeed then you need to try again or try something else, but keep on trying.
Some amount of trust must exist at the start or find a way to very quickly build it. You don’t have to trust that every partner has your best interest at heart, but you need enough trust that you can talk about those issues. You also have to trust that there is enough flex in the partnership to accommodate normal differences of opinion or objective but that there is sufficient common ground to hold it together.
There will be tension so don’t expect otherwise. You have to manage those tensions as openly and honestly as possible.
For the first two years, TechBelt partners were schooled in the first three lessons. Now with the award of the NAMII, the TechBelt faces a new set of challenges and opportunities. NAMII provides the region with an opportunity to revitalize manufacturing and reestablish our region as a global center for manufacturing innovation. NAMII is the platform not the prize – although it is a very significant prize. The strength of our collaboration will be tested as we begin to transform that prize into an operational platform. Meeting the obligations of the contract and fulfilling the lofty goals and objectives of the many partners won’t be easy. There will be tension, but we have to trust that we can manage it productively.