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Ready to Externalize? Start internally.

In the past, most companies assumed that the way to create value and, indeed, to win in the marketplace was to have the singular best internal capabilities—from research to innovation to development to manufacturing and beyond. Today, more and more companies know that the best way to bring greater value to customers is by finding, accessing, and taking advantage of innovation wherever it exists—which is, of course, frequently outside the company. They know, in other words, that the key to winning is to “externalize”.

But while the will to externalize is there, and many firms have taken various efforts to do it, most still haven’t truly captured the promise of externalizing. Why? Because while they espouse externalizing as a goal, they haven’t fully embedded the notion of externalization into their internal processes and behaviors. They’re stuck in an outsourcing mindset (at best), focused on ensuring that their internal efforts are as strong as possible and looking to partner only when they believe they have gaps or, perhaps, that there is some unique external capability that they need to leverage. External partners are viewed as a means of fulfilling a specific, targeted function or technology instead of fundamental elements of the company’s strategy.

To successfully capture the value promised by externalization, you need to change the way you think and the way you operate. That means shifting the foundations of the organization from an assumption that you need to win through your own expertise to an assumption that you will win through world-class partnering, broadly defined.

Organizational and Behavioral Drivers for Successful Externalization

Once you’ve made the mindset shift to winning through partnering, the next step is to embed that mindset into every aspect of the organization—from culture to organizational structure to incentives to processes and tools to skills and behaviors. Otherwise, you’ll have only limited success. Below are just a few of the things organizations need to do to externalize successfully.

  1. Create and communicate a clear and coherent external relationship strategy, so potential partners bring their best opportunities to you. It’s important to proactively, externally communicate the extent and seriousness of your new model and the porousness of your boundaries.
  2. Build the operational interfaces for drawing on external resources. When partnership is baked into operations, companies can move rapidly into new initiatives and markets with a broader set of strategic objectives. This often requires adopting a project mindset, in which internal and external capabilities can be tapped quickly and seamlessly for any given effort, without regard to employment status. It also requires building budgets that account for variable external costs.
  3. Be open to creative, “win-win” partnering structures that get the company access to the best opportunities. Companies must be comfortable with creating fit-for-purpose relationship structures that allow for maximum and fair value creation based on the unique needs of each partner.
  4. Ensure partners feel respected and would want to work with you in the future. When companies move slowly on decisions, de-prioritize partner meetings, or undervalue partner contributions or expertise, those partners aren’t likely to bring their best. When partners feel respected, on the other hand, relationships flourish, and companies are viewed as partners of choice.
  5. Train people on how to manage and engage in external relationships successfully. To make partnerships work, people within your organization need to have solid collaboration, influence, and negotiation skills. Managers must be deft at creating and supporting just-in-time teams that can both leverage and deal with difference.
  6. Address issues with partners in a transparent and collaborative manner. Proactive identification, management, and accommodation of difference—between company and partner strategies, goals, culture, risk tolerance, etc.—has to be part of the organizational DNA. Both parties need to be committed to experimenting together, working iteratively, and periodically reflecting on what is and isn’t working.

Successful externalization doesn’t happen on its own. Leaders need to explicitly define the change in their organization’s strategic assumptions, articulate the implications for the way people will work and how the organizational model will shift, and—most important—purposefully and methodically move the organization to the new, externalized model. Otherwise, externalization will remain nothing more than a nice idea at best, a failure at worst.

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