Stronger Together: The Benefits of Solid Partnerships and Other Lessons from the Social Innovation Summit

Collaboration is the secret ingredient for success at scale. While the challenges facing society are dynamic and complex, innovative collaborations are beginning to bear fruit as we look for solutions.
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In that hectic time between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, when deadlines loom and projects require wrapping up before the holidays, a conference arrived that could not come at a better time. The Social Innovation Summit gathered leaders from top Fortune 500 companies, civic organizations, government leaders and social entrepreneurs to discuss the strategies and business innovations impacting social transformations across all sectors. The two-day event left us energized and recharged, and ready to dive into 2013.

We heard many inspiring stories at the Summit, such as that by Daniel Epstein and his Unreasonable Institute and that of an emerging leader, Adanna Chukwuma with the Global Health Corps, whose remarks were electrifying. A few common threads wound through them all:

Smart, solid collaborations and partnerships are absolutely critical to success. Collaboration is the secret ingredient for success at scale. While the challenges facing society are dynamic and complex, innovative collaborations are beginning to bear fruit as we look for solutions. Government can offer more than regulation, business can offer more than philanthropy and NGOs can offer more than advocacy. It's impressive the number of smart partnerships that have evolved as the parties involved share a common vision, shared mission and mutual passion for a particular social issue. These companies and organizations have become partners of choice -- that is, the kind of partner you would want to align your organization with. We saw that spring to life many times during the Summit. There were those instances when it was clear that partnerships of organizations and corporations had evolved to a degree that they demonstrated deeper, more meaningful impact with a few partners rather than a multitude of surface partners.

Technology is at the heart of social solutions but is not the solution. The power of people and technology also became evident with the example from the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford. There, Cisco's video technology is not just bringing doctors and patients closer together; it's realizing other tangible side benefits. We watched a doctor-patient meeting where a young man had a check-in with his urologist despite being miles apart. Still, they connected on his health issues and worked out answers to potential upcoming challenges. The young man and his family didn't have to make the six hour roundtrip from their home to the hospital, didn't have to take time off from work or school and thus could give their undivided attention to the visit. That said, those using the technology must be able to use it well to achieve the desired affects. Technology, indeed, is only as good as the user.

Invest in rapid prototyping. Rob Shelton, managing director of innovation at PwC, related the story of how James Dyson of vacuum fame blazed through 5,127 prototypes before finding one that worked. If your prototype is successful, you have data. If your prototype isn't successful, you have a new discovery. When working on a social solution, we must smartly try out new ideas and embrace design thinking -- whether it's a delivery method for services or a new product -- to find the best solutions. Rapid prototyping meshes well with social innovation and reflects the familiar mantra: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

The rise of intrapreneurs: While it is always good to open ourselves up to outside ideas, sometimes the most practical and immediate solutions come from inside. Employees are and should always be a company's best ambassadors; they should be encouraged and incentivized to share their ideas to advance business objectives while also making a meaningful difference to the communities they serve. Companies such as Apple, Coca-Cola, Clearwater Systems and Walmart are doing just that. For example, Walmart started its own social incubation program with its employees and a mission to find new social and sustainable innovations within its supply chain, products and packaging.

Measurement and scale are more relevant than ever. While we have made advances in measuring the outputs of social programs, it isn't enough. We must have impact metrics that cut across social and business goals. By evaluating impact metrics, we are able to best understand how, and if, we should invest, scale up or discontinue for the best value for all stakeholders involved.

These are just several of the insights from the 2012 Summit. What's next in social innovation? How can we have a deeper impact? Let us know in the comment section.

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