Distrust and hope characterise innovation collaborations

Published: 2019-12-12

Different views and values within an organisation can complicate collaborations with other organisations. However, leaders who are prepared for this may be more successful in navigating their way through the storm unscathed. This is discussed in a newly published article by researcher Anna Brattström in the prestigious Academy of Management Journal.

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Hope and despair. These feelings characterised the long-term collaboration project between two different multinational companies studied by researcher Anna Brattström from the School of Economics and Management at Lund University. Now she is presenting the results in two research articles.

“When all is said and done, collaboration is about trust. It is vital for getting the projects and processes to work. However, we often see trust come to nothing and collaborations full of conflicts. How can these situations be solved and managed?” asks Anna Brattström, researcher specialising in innovation and entrepreneurship.

Anna Brattström and her research colleagues have not focused only on the collaboration difficulties between organisations, but also within the individual organisations, something that is quite unusual.

“We have seen that within an organisation there is not just one, but several political systems, several different agendas. It may sound irrational, but organisations consist of people with different feelings and goals and that is the result,” she says.

One of the studies, published in the journal Organization Studies and co-authored with Magnus Mähring from the Stockholm School of Economics and Dries Faems from the WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management in Germany, found that there may be a successful way to continue with a collaboration.

“Protect those who are not already involved in the conflict. If the conflict is at management level, make sure the staff is not involved. Allow them to continue doing their jobs. It is far too common for everyone to be sat down around a table to sort things out, which may lead to rumours and suspicions spreading unnecessarily”, says Anna Brattström.

In the most recent research article, published in Academy of Management Journal, Anna Brattström and Dries Faems from WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management, write about the importance of managers understanding that their employees do not always share the same values as they do, or as the management. This may complicate things, for example, when a collaboration between different parties could be positive for an organisation, but less so for the individual employee.

“For an individual, a new collaboration with an external organisation may mean that something they are an expert in is no longer needed. In this case, the individual will hardly share the same position on the collaboration as, for example, the management. Therefore, it is important for leaders to be aware of the personal consequences that a change may entail. Employees who feel under threat may drive a process in an undesired direction for the company,” says Anna Brattström.

In other words: even informal power can have significant consequences, particularly for an organisation that is unaware of the fact that it works like this.

In the study on the multinational companies, Anna Brattström saw senior managers who were hopeful about the potential of the new project. They believed in collaboration in the form of open information exchange and by maximising mutual benefit. However, there was an internal group with a more negative view that regarded the collaboration as a transaction in which the collaboration partner was an opportunistic actor. They acted accordingly.

“The managers continued to be hopeful about the future, at the same time as they were increasingly disappointed with the present. In this case, the project went on for many years, cost lots of money, but still it continued. If we are to understand innovation we need to understand these emotional aspects of working together.”

The researchers were drawn to the subject since the premise was so strange: why invest in projects that become so rife with conflict?

“Now we understand why. Interorganisational relationships are complex. Those involved want it to work, but they do not dare to trust each other entirely. The lack of trust then becomes a breeding ground for conflict,” Anna Brattström says.

“Innovation is a collaborative process. It is not possible to sit in your ivory tower and believe that something is going to happen. The R&D departments work strategically on collaborations with other companies where innovation is the focus and something unique is to be developed. You are dependent on others in that work, at the same time as you want to continue protecting your own secrets. This leads to interesting dilemmas. How do you develop something unique while also collaborating outside the internal organisation?”

Anna Brattström discerns some simple lessons to be learned from the studies for leaders and employees:

“The first step in becoming a good leader or manager is to be aware that there are going to be different views on a collaboration. Collaborative innovation that seems logical in a PowerPoint presentation is not always as logical for those who have to live with the collaboration in their daily work. People have different ways of seeing things. If you wish to gain the support of those who do not think like you, you need to do this early on in a project and allow the process to take time. We have seen that there can be significant consequences later on if you skip this step in the early stages,” she concludes.

The studies are funded by several grants, from VINNOVA and the Jan Wallander foundation among others.

Article: Inter-Organizational Relationships as Political Battlefields: How Fragmentation within Organizations Shapes Relational Dynamics between Organizations

Article: From Trust Convergence to Trust Divergence: Trust Development in Conflictual Inter-Organizational Relationships


Anna Brattström
PhD in business administration. Associate senior lecturer in entrepreneurship at the Sten K. Johnson Centre for Entrepreneurship at the Lund University School of Economics and Management.

E-mail: anna.brattstrom@fek.lu.se
Telephone: +46 (0)733-86 79 49