COVID-19 requires rapid action, and it requires innovation. This unprecedented challenge demands that we overcome organisational and sector boundaries and join forces. A number of companies have managed to move extremely fast on innovating COVID-19 responses. Usually, these kinds of partnerships take months if not years to develop. Instead these are taking days and weeks.
Business Fights Poverty convened an online discussion to explore what we can learn from these new partnerships and the innovations they are creating - both to inspire and strengthen the short-term response to COVID-19, and to help make innovation partnerships the “new normal” in a post-COVID world.
In the face of adversity, businesses have taken swift action to innovate and partner
Whilst the scale of the COVID-19 challenge is daunting, the discussion brought to light many inspiring examples of business taking action to protect the most vulnerable. New and previously established partnerships are developing new approaches to prevention, treatment and diagnosis; scaling production of vital equipment, PPE, soaps and sanitisers; increasing public awareness of COVID-19 prevention methods; strengthening and augmenting food supply systems; protecting employment and income; and providing food and financial assistance to the most vulnerable.
Established partnerships that pre-date the crisis are also playing an invaluable role in continuing to tackle other pressing issues that will be exacerbated by the pandemic - for example, malaria and domestic violence. The pandemic has laid bare the flaws in global economic and healthcare systems, so these partnerships are already looking beyond the immediate response to plan for systems change and building back better.
A new partnering environment
What many of these initiatives have in common is the willingness of organisations to work across sectors, pooling resources and expertise to have a greater impact. As Shazeeb M Khairul Islam, Managing Director, YY Goshti, commented: “We are all confined by limited resources. We need to be open to sharing each other’s resources. Linking companies with expertise in areas where each can complement and build upon the other is a necessary way forward.”
Our participants observed that the crisis has removed many of the normal barriers to innovation, and sped up regulatory approval, access to unrestricted funding, due diligence and internal decision-making. Furthermore, many organisations are sharing data more freely. The scale of the common threat has resulted in a laser-focus, in which all partners can see the obvious case for action. This urgency may have also resulted in greater willingness to trust new partners - as Darian Stibbe, Executive Director, The Partnering Initiative, said: “in normal times, trust is built by working successfully together over time. Here, I think it’s that in the face of adversity, we assume a certain level of trust to start with.” What once took months or years, is now being achieved in a matter of days and weeks.
How can businesses partner for rapid innovation?
Christina Tewes-Gradl, Challenge Director, Business Fights Poverty, shared some insights from Business Fights Poverty’s collaborative work in this area. The research has identified three partnership models that are being utilised for rapid innovation in response to the COVID-19 crisis: individual lead platforms, in which one organisation leads and is supported by others; collaborative alliances that pool complementary capabilities of two or more organisations; and innovation platforms, which crowd-source innovation. Further information can be found in Business Fights Poverty’s toolkit.
Whilst rapid innovation partnerships require all partners to radically re-think their collaboration processes, there are still some aspects of traditional partnering which hold true. Successful partnerships are rooted in common needs, objectives and values, and often support the core business aims of the partners. As Florencia Estrade, Global Director, League of Intrapreneurs points out, the heart of any partnership is always the people behind the institutions, who are prepared to foster the right mindset and take risks. Hannah Green, Director of Corporate Responsibility, GSK, concurred:“Underlying organisational culture is very important - people need to be empowered to make appropriate decisions and take balanced risks.” This requires bold leadership from the very top.
Navigating the risks
Whilst the sense of urgency is driving rapid action, our panellists also warned that there is still a place for caution. Partnerships are likely to encounter governance risks; collaborative challenges working across different countries, objectives and functions; and management risks arising from lack of clear roles and responsibilities, as well as ethical risks. In addition, Justin Wilson, Partner, European and UK Patent Attorney, Withers & Rogers LLP warns that intellectual property rights is a key area which may be overlooked in the rush to innovate. Early discussions about who owns the intellectual property produced, the permitted uses (both during and after the immediate crisis), and the potential for infringing the property rights of others, can prevent complex disagreements later on.
A promising future for agile partnerships
The more agile approaches to partnering and rapid innovation that have emerged during the last few weeks hold the potential to change the way that we partner in the long-term. More than ever, partners are operating across silos. The crisis has shone a light on the interconnected nature of our world, has demonstrated the need for deep systemic change, and has revealed that often, the best solutions lie in local, in-country capacity and knowledge. After the initial shock of COVID-19 has passed, the lessons we learn about agile partnering must be applied to help us “build back better” - the realisation of a sustainable and inclusive economic future.
Call to Action
Business Fights Poverty is coordinating a programme to support companies share global learning and take local action on COVID-19. Sign up to receive a full summary of the online discussion, and a copy of our Toolkit on Rapid Innovation through Partnership. Through the Business and COVID-19 Response Centre, you can join our community of practitioners and experts, utilise our Response Framework to help you decide where, when and how to take action, and share best practice examples through our constantly-expanding Action Mapping Tool.
We are grateful for the time and expertise of our Panellists:
“I truly hope that this experience helps many organisations overcome the bias against partnerships as being risky, complex, lengthy. An agile approach to partnering - that’s a great learning from this crisis!” Christina Tewes-Gradl, Challenge Director, Business Fights Poverty
“As we forge new platforms for collaboration and adapt existing partnerships in response to COVID-19, we have the chance to help economies grow back in ways that are more sustainable, and to resolve long-standing bottlenecks for more effective access to innovation.” Lisa Goldman-Van Nostrand Chief of Staff, Global Health Partnerships, Sumitomo Chemical
“ Understanding that we all have a role to play and that we are part of the solution will create a dynamic to deliver fast results with innovation as a common thread in every project.” Catalina Garcia Gomez, Global Director of Corporate Affairs, AB InBev
“Underlying organisational culture is very important - people need to be empowered to make appropriate decisions and take balanced risks.” Hannah Green, Director of Corporate Responsibility, GSK