My Interview with Steve Schmida, Author of Partner with Purpose: Solving 21st-Century Business Problems Through Cross-Sector Collaboration
Steve Schmida may not have all of the answers to our world’s “wicked” problems, but he certainly has the foundation. As an international development expert leveraging partnerships to address our global challenges, ranging from climate change to food access, Schmida shares his approach to solving our most complex problems in his new book, Partner with Purpose: Solving 21st-Century Business Problems Through Cross-Sector Collaboration.
When I reached out to inquire about an interview for this blog, Steve couldn’t have been more willing to chat partnerships, collaboration, challenges engaging business leaders, and what it takes to combat these “wicked” problems he so aptly identified.
My interview with Steve is below. But first, an introduction:
Steve Schmida is Chief Innovation Officer and Co-Founder of Resonance, a global consulting company headquartered in Burlington, VT, leveraging market-based solutions to the world’s biggest challenges. Before founding Resonance, Schmida spent a number of years working in the former Soviet Union, helping advance entrepreneurship models, promoting democratic development and human rights. During that time, Schmida had many opportunities to learn the ins and outs of bringing public and private actors together to achieve, what we now call, shared value, or a way of engaging in collaboration for mutual benefit and comparative advantage. This model of collaboration helped form the genesis of Resonance, which now after fifteen years, has become a leader in building effective collaborations for scaled impact. Helping donor agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), global nonprofits or private sector organizations partner to accelerate impact, Resonance leverages effective collaboration approaches to make development work better for those who most benefit.
Below is a summary of our conversation.
JS: What are some of the biggest challenges businesses are facing now? Many are of course unique given Coronavirus, but if we were to also consider pre-COVID, and looking into the future, what issues arise? How does cross-sector collaboration help?
SS: If you consider what businesses’ core priorities were during the 20th century, they were focused solely on optimization. Programs around lean manufacturing, six sigma or other methods for minimizing outputs and inputs were top of mind. Moving into the 21st century, business challenges have become more complicated. “Wicked” problems that offer no linear causation or solution, like climate change, human trafficking in supply chains, improving sustainable sourcing in agriculture and so on require a completely different set of tools and approaches. Collaboration is important for tackling these problems, because there is really no way companies can solve them on their own. No one company or civil society actor can make climate change less of a reality without engaging others to create new incentive structures, cultures or methods for evaluating success. Collaboration is the new norm.
JS: Do companies need prodding or encouragement to think this way, or are they moving into this new evolution on their own?
SS: For those companies that see this move as being critical, they are making decisions accordingly. For others, there are a number of forces pushing companies in this direction. These include:
JS: What was it that prompted you to write this book? Which moments over your extensive career working with businesses in collaboration contexts made you think that writing a book was necessary to get this message out?
SS: There’s a lot of great material out there around partnerships produced by many wonderful organizations. Almost all of the information, however, has been written from the perspective of the public sector, or is focused exclusively on civil society. Very little has been written from the business context that allows the sector to act. I’ve worked directly on fifty or more partnerships (which includes building, managing, evaluating, and implementing collaborations). For business professionals, this space is tricky to navigate. I wanted to put something forward for a business professional that provides value and guides them into cross-sector collaboration in a way that’s engaging and readable. Also I wanted it to be less academic. The book is a “how to guide,” but it does not come with exercises. It does, however, include narratives that aim to illustrate a point, by highlighting how peers have engaged around a sustainability agenda. The book is meant to give different perspectives for businesses to use collaboration as a commercially viable tool.
JS: What is an ideal example of cross-sector collaboration through your experience? Something that’s worked well?
SS: There’s a good example that I include in the book, of a Resonance project working with USAID in Ghana. We were working with fisherfolk who found it risky to fish in the open ocean. We identified that insurance would help ameliorate the risk for fisherfolk’s families, so we brought in insurance and financial companies to deploy mobile micro insurance products geared towards these communities. Both the companies and USAID wanted to scale the initial project, so with the help of the Ghanaian government, we expanded what we thought would only be 300 participants into a 3,000 participant program. The companies were thrilled, because their product showed value, and they were able to learn a new market segment. The fisherfolk were relieved, and the government was happy to see such a viable business take off in this local context. USAID also saw value, given the extension of this informal sector into a new geography. The program is scaling and will serve 200,000 paying customers just this year. The insurance and financial companies are extending their services beyond fisherfolk into other sectors. We were thrilled to see a development problem turn into a business opportunity by finding the right collaboration.
JS: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in engaging in cross-sector collaboration?
SS: Effective collaboration around sustainability needs to solve a business problem, as well as a social or environmental problem. There must be alignment internally from both the business and corporate social responsibility sides for collaboration to work. At the same time, companies are facing supply side constraints. They are starting to see a pinch in their standard way of operating. In agriculture, for example, climate impacts yield, so when demand goes up, yields are doubly impacted. The internal teams focused on both of these issues need to agree with how to address this challenge. This internal misalignment is not unique to companies, but companies need to agree that there’s value in partnership. Multiple company departments have to be involved in making decisions. Incentives must align. Companies have different cultures and ways of handling these decisions. Internal alignment, and bringing stakeholders along on the journey is something that’s not often talked about, but where there’s a lot of work to still take on.
JS: In the book you share valuable tools for businesses ready to partner, including ways to overcome differences in approaches or methods for measuring impact. What is one of the most important elements of the process you include?
SS: Measurement. At Resonance we have a partnership results chain process that we use. It looks very similar to a logical framework analysis yet incorporates partner goals and motivations. We use it to help companies manage their partnership engagements a bit easier. We’ve also used it as a facilitation tool. The tool allows partners to understand the implicit and explicit outcomes of the partnership. We adapt it to many contexts and I share about it in the book.
JS: What is the one thing you wish you could tell all business leaders before they embark on a partnership journey?
SS: To get clear and crisp on the problem to be solved and determine whether it lends itself to partnership or not. In the book I talk about the simple, complicated and wicked problems framework. First things first, companies must understand what type of problem they are trying to solve. If it’s a simple problem, maybe they don’t need to involve outside actors to solve it. If it’s a complicated or wicked problem, then a business may need to ask itself “who else cares,” “who else has equities in this problem,” or if it’s unique to the company, in which case it makes sense to address the problem on its own. If there are equities elsewhere, the business will need to engage others in collaboration. This becomes the key point of departure in thinking about a partnership.
JS: What do you hope your readers will gain by reading your book?
SS: I hope they walk away excited that there’s an approach for solving problems, or at least trying to tackle them. Collaboration across sectors is not as easy as it sounds. Many of our clients come to Resonance after they’ve had a failed experience with partnership. Certain elements are complicated, especially internally. Yet they can be solved. Effective partnership requires intentionality. I hope business leaders approach partnership with intention and be deliberate after reading this book.
JS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
SS: Partnerships are an incredible tool but they are not a panacea. The purpose of my book is to help companies see that partnership is a tool they can use, and equip people with the skills to determine whether it’s the right tool. Resonance’s commitment is to operate at the nexus of civil society, the public and private sectors, and to help focus on the important problems to solve.
It was such a joy to talk with Steve about his work and his book. His dedication to partnership building, and effective collaboration to address our wicked problems is inspiring and contagious. I hope you’ll join me in enjoying his book when it comes out June 2nd. Pre-sales are available here.
Joanne Sonenshine is Founder of Connective Impact, an advisory firm developing impactful partnership, funding and collaboration strategies for international, mission-driven, socially-minded and environmentally conscious organizations