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Every organizational leader lauds innovation, so why do so many businesses struggle with the process? Companies’ internal research and development teams can only take their innovation efforts so far. Case in point: Though 93 percent of executives surveyed by Accenture said innovation was critical to long-term success, less than 20 percent of the same pool of respondents said their current efforts were moving the needle.

Just as people are motivated by the company they keep, companies are influenced by the partnerships they embrace. Those hoping to innovate would be wise to look beyond their own walls and form partnerships with universities, startups, and other industry players.

Making the Case for Collaboration

Working side by side with smart, innovation-minded individuals gives companies a new perspective on old problems, which helps them adapt to technological advancements and evolve with customer preferences.

Partnerships also protect established companies from getting caught off guard by industry disruptors. The way the hotel industry was upended by Airbnb, for example, sets a cautionary tale. By hooking up with young minds, companies get the benefits of fresh eyes and new perspectives that help them stay abreast of industry shifts.

We’ve seen the positive effects of a partnership at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL). When we were looking to create an accelerator program, we knew we wanted it to be a public-private partnership.

We paired with utility provider Ameren to create the Ameren Accelerator, a 12-week program bringing together bright university minds eager to launch startups with the support of a corporate partner. In each Accelerator cohort, five to seven companies receive funding, a workspace, mentoring, and other perks. Ameren received an ear to the ground and a chance to get in on product and service innovations.

If you’re ready to invest in a partnership, here are three steps to get you started:

1. Investigate all your possible partners.

Carefully vetting potential partners is crucial. Start by looking at companies and organizations you know, and study any potential partners by keeping tabs on what they’re doing. Set Google Alerts, read industry blogs, conduct consistent searches, and join user forums.

When UMSL was considering a partner, we looked at plenty of possibilities. One of our most important prerequisites was having buy-in from the most senior level of a company. By sticking to our criteria throughout a careful vetting process, we were able to form a successful partnership with Ameren. It was the right fit for both parties.

If you’re looking to recruit potential partners, consider hosting an open innovation program where people come together to discuss a specific topic. By listening to industry players at these events, you’ll see pain points emerge — those are problems you could potentially solve through a partnership.

“As technologies continue to advance and as the needs and expectations of our customers continue to rise, it is important that we work collaboratively with innovators and entrepreneurs throughout the world to deliver superior value to our customers, shareholders, and the communities we serve,” said Warner Baxter, the chairman, president, and CEO of Ameren.

2. Start with a plan, but remain flexible.

Both you and potential partners will have goals for the partnership. You don’t need partners who share your exact plan, but you do need partners who share your passion and vision. The best partnerships happen when one partner’s weakness is another’s strength. As long as you match up in enthusiasm, you can elevate your collective outcomes.

It helps to set measurable objectives that you and your partners can use to track success. Together with Ameren, we determined how many accelerator applications UMSL would bring to the table, what technology or solutions they were looking for, what each entity’s investment looked like, and how much public exposure the project would try to garner. Putting this plan together set our partnership up for stellar engagement, a good return on investment, and a custom-built approach to innovation.

3. Expect and embrace change.

Innovation requires a willingness to change, and change can create tension. Make change more palatable by reframing it as a way to get closer to the end goals you and your partners set. Making sure all leaders are moving in the same direction will help you get through any friction points you run into. In our partnership with Ameren, it was important that we established an expectation that the process could get chaotic.

While you could invest time, money, and brainpower in an in-house innovation initiative, building a strong partnership might be a more valuable investment. Innovation is closer than you might think.