Cooperation or counteraction

Door Ilse Hoenderdos,
op 10 november 2014

Cooperation is central in almost all projects Copper8 (there’s a reason Copper8 is derived from the English cooperate) and cooperation ultimately serves as an accelerator to deliver sustainable innovations that organizations could not conceive, let alone achieve, on their own. It sounds quite logical: bringing together several areas of knowledge leads to more than the sum of their parts. But is it that simple or is there a lot more at play? What is needed to make collaboration work? What can you do for it and what should you not do?

Years ago I participated in a program run by a large multinational company, where large-scale IT services were outsourced. The starting point was to create a partnership between three parties for a period of five years. I was on the negotiating team that prepared the negotiations for months. Cooperation with the IT parties and the inclusion of the right incentives for the partnership were key. However, this cooperation went completely wrong at the opening meeting with the invited parties. During the meeting, the phone rang of one of the representatives of a large IT company. Our hired negotiator, specializing in complex and lengthy negotiations, walked towards the man and told him resolutely: “If this happens again I will shoot you in the knee. And if it happens a second time I shoot you in the head.” And as he said this, he pushed his finger onto the man’s forehead. From that moment everything was really on edge. The art of negotiation was to show as little of your motives as possible (because they could be used against you). An “us versus them” dynamic arose, in which cooperation only occurred if there was a payoff. In fact, there was obstruction instead of cooperation. The result was ultimately a contract that was carefully followed to the letter. Additional work and thinking immediately yielded more work. But all that was not disclosed was additional work. Moreover, no innovation took place in those five years because the margins for the IT party were so low that any form of innovation would lead to a loss.

Looking back on it, you might say that from the first moment the action of the negotiator cultivated fear; a constant fear of losing the deal. Fear of doing something that would not get the negotiator’s approval. This led to fear of disclosure; what would the other party then do with the information? Fear that the other party abuses it when something is given away. And that is exactly what it’s about. How often does one hear that trust is something you have to earn?

This belief often ensures that parties face each other and each waits for the other to take a step. Giving confidence to another person or organization is a conscious choice – you are aware of the vulnerability that is fixed to it. Giving confidence means taking responsibility and sticking out your neck. But it also gives the other party a (moral) responsibility to handle it with respect. And this is often the beginning and the foundation of successful cooperation. This creates an atmosphere where the parties can allow each other to create a relationship. Where openness and expression are not perceived as scary, but as things that bring added value. Where seeking such value together is a win-win solution.

It makes me think of a story in which two children, Klaas and Marieke, both want the last orange in the fruit bowl. The mother is pulling her hair out, because she doesn’t want to disappoint either of her children (but doesn’t explain that). The kids start whining harder for the orange (without saying why they want it). Eventually the mother decides to cut the orange and give both a piece. The result is that both children begin to cry uncontrollably. Because guess what? Klaas wanted the peel of orange to make marmalade and Marieke wanted the juice of the orange to make orange juice.

So today I was at the National Sustainability Congress 2014, at which a big Dutch contractor indicated that for integrated sustainability, collaboration within and outside the supply chain is required. He was willing to share his profits with partners. Fortunately, we hear this increasingly. We see more and more organizations realize that optimizing what they have always done will not lead to new thinking or more profit. Especially if they do it on their own strength. We see that more and more organizations are willing to step outside their comfort zones and stick out their necks. Practically, organizations are forced to make a decision: do I make choices based on fear or based on trust?

Trusting means that something special can take place. Because of this, understanding may occur, but also admiration for others who dare to show vulnerability (there is power in vulnerability, but that’s another blog). And where there is understanding, there is room for giving, taking and allowing. At that moment you can make marmalade AND orange juice. Klaas is happy, Marieke’s happy. And their mother is happy too.

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