Live from NRF: Three Challenges of Playing in the Collaboration Sandbox

New York–As a kid, learning to play together wasn’t always easy, but our parents told us it was good for us. Now that we’re adults, we’re still being told it’s good for us, and it’s not any easier. At least that’s how it seems when it comes to collaboration in the business world. During a Monday session at NRF’s Big Show, Jim Flannery, managing director of consumer development at Procter & Gamble Global Operations, offered three reasons collaboration is so hard despite its big prize.

First, Flannery said, companies have challenges inventing the future while delivering Friday’s payroll. While many companies don’t like change, they absolutely hate surprises. Instead of springing sweeping initiatives on employees, Flannery suggested using a “glide path,” a smooth transition, to implement long-term initiatives without upsetting employees.

Second, collaboration can be difficult because the measures are misaligned both within and between companies. Ann Schwister, director of finance at Procter & Gamble, said collaboration is effective at her company because it focuses less on unit volume sold and dollar value and more on what the customers and retailers need. “Collaboration is easy and it works when you keep the consumer at the center,” Flannery said.

Third, said Flannery, we suffer from the prisoner’s dilemma: If each person works alone, everyone loses; if all but one works together, the group loses and the individual wins, but if the entire group collaborates, everybody wins. For example, Schwister explained that before a recent realignment of the oral-care industry, companies like Procter & Gamble were concerned about driving costs and getting their piece of the pie. But when Procter & Gamble stopped to listen to what consumers were telling retailers–that they wanted more teeth-whitening products–profitability rose.

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