The seeds of this approach were sown several years ago after I had enjoyed offering my marketing skills to a number of charities that I believed in. I realised that supporting them had been as much a benefit to my own evolving capabilities as a marketer as to the causes I was supporting. Since most of my opportunities to contribute had come to me in rather random ways, I thought it might be useful to make similar opportunities more easily and systematically available to the marketing profession as a whole. This impulse led me to create Pimp My Cause, a matching platform connecting marketers with charities and social enterprises that they can support with their marketing talent while enhancing their own professional capabilities and experience in the process.
Pimp My Cause has since supported over two thousand charities with access to pro bono marketing as well as provided individual marketers, whole marketing teams and leading creative agencies with countless opportunities to further develop their own potential. It has achieved far more than a thousand times over what I could possibly have achieved by simply offering my own support to good causes. And reflecting on this led me to ask if a similar approach could be harnessed to drive breakthroughs in business success as well?
I created the Agency of the Future to find out. And working with businesses ranging from start ups to global corporates and even with institutions of international governance led me to better understand that whomever you work for, there is always more value-creating potential in the world outside your organisation than there is inside it.
This potential can be harnessed for example by an insurance provider helping customers to lower their premiums and the risk to the business by better avoiding the need for claims in the first place; by a sports manufacturer creating more opportunities for people to enjoy participating in the sport they need their clothes and equipment for to begin with; or by a humanitarian agency helping people affected by disasters to better help themselves and the people around them rather than treating them as simply the passive recipients of aid.
Back in the days when I lived in Paris, I enjoyed drinking coffee on a Saturday afternoon opposite the Centre Georges Pompidou. Some people love this iconic building and others hate it. Either way, its distinguishing feature is that the structural and functional components of the building, such as the escalators and ventilation shafts are placed on the outside of the building for all to see, rather than hidden away in the building’s entrails. I came to see the building as a visual metaphor for how things like ‘open innovation’ work: as a process of opening up the internal functions of a business to outsiders to see and get involved with.
But then I began to wonder if we should actually be going much further than that, not just opening up the inside of a business to external participation but instead seeing the business itself as an enabler of outside value-creation. Such an approach has unlocked the tremendous growth of platforms such as Airbnb, that support people in renting out their own spare rooms as an alternative to costly hotel accommodation in what has become known as ‘the sharing economy’; but we have arguably barely scratched the surface of the potential for all businesses to find ways to multiply their own successes manifold by better seeing their customers and other stakeholders as active creators of value of at least the same significance as their own staff.
Working this way ultimately led me to challenge the most influential idea in the history of business: the idea of Competitive Advantage. Success may be primarily due to our own performance in very isolated circumstances, such as in a 100m sprint at an athletics meet. But in every instance of business life I have ever come across, outcomes and successes have depended on a coming together of far more than just our own actions and capabilities. Which is why I now propose Collaborative Advantage as a radical alternative to Competitive Advantage and analyse how Collaborative Advantage can be built to multiply manifold the success of any business.
As a first step to creating Collaborative Advantage, try asking yourself not what your organisation exists to do; but what it exists to help others do and how it might do that better? You may be surprised by the power of the answers you find.
Collaborative Advantage by Paul Skinner is published by Robinson How To