Reflections on the Collaborative Corporate

Last November we launched the Collaborative Corporate, a report I co-authored with Dan Smith, Managing Director at Headland. 

The background to the project

Together with Headland Co-Founder, Neil Hedges, Dan has been a guest speaker at my postgraduate Corporate Communications course at London School of Economics for several years. Neil and Dan deliver a highly engaging and thought-provoking presentation on the ‘state of corporate communications.’  After this year’s lecture, Dan asked whether I would be interested in collaborating with Headland on a research project centred on the idea of the Collaborative Corporate.

Why was the concept of the Collaborative Corporate interesting to me?

Dan’s initial thesis was that while the benefits of collaboration to business are not new, messier problems caused by greater complexity – such as the climate crisis, artificial intelligence and geopolitical tensions – have potentially profound outcomes in the longer term that mean the requisite depth and nature of collaboration will need to change.  His hunch was that enterprises will have to cast their nets far wider in search of potential partners, and that the collaborative ‘muscle’ of a corporate will dramatically increase in importance.  Dan expressed the belief that the ability of an enterprise to collaborate would directly correlate with its reputation and, ultimately, its ability to create value.

My work focuses on how individuals and enterprises respond to complexity.  My research is transdisciplinary in nature, investigating complexity from two perspectives: using systems sciences to explore the deep structure of complex situations and behavioural sciences to uncover how people behave and interact in complex contexts.  In terms of corporate communications, some of the research questions that interest me include:

  • How do corporates manage their reputations in volatile, uncertain environments which give rise to ‘wicked problems’?
  • What causes discussions and debates to become polarised?  Can the way we conduct dialogue be shaped to foster depolarisation?
  • How can we communicate complex ideas so as to foster trust and build reputation?

Given the focus of my work, I was immediately intrigued by the new twist that complexity brought to the apparently well-worn topic of collaboration. 

I also found the project interesting because of its link to Headland’s DNA.  I learned a little of Headland’s history and identity through conversations with Dan, Neil and their colleagues.  Headland was founded on the belief that there was an opportunity to capitalise upon a disjunct in the public relations industry.  Since the 1980s, there has been a divide between the subsectors of financial public relations and corporate reputation, each possessing its own distinct strengths and quirks. These two apparently adjacent professions were actually divergent in terms of culture, practice and the nature of client relationships.

The hypothesis behind Headland’s creation was that value could be created by offering clients ‘everything briefs’ – integrated offerings weaving together disparate strands of expertise, such as reputation development, corporate affairs, financial public relations and political campaigning.

This collaboration between distinct ‘tribes’ of public relations professionals is woven into Headland’s DNA.  The concept of the Collaborative Corporate is a logical extension of this notion, extending Headland’s history of collaboration from the corporate and its sector to the wider ecosystem. 

Takeaways that intrigued me

There are many implications arising from the concept of the Collaborative Corporate, and we will be exploring them in greater detail over the coming months.  What immediately struck me when concluding our research is the juxtaposition of two contradictory ideas (and reconciling such contradictory ideas is a central theme of work on complexity):

  • Conventional collaboration is a necessary prerequisite for the stretch collaboration across ecosystems that we discuss in the report.  Stretch collaboration[1] is an emerging type of collaboration that addresses complex situations, involving people we don’t agree with or even trust, by embracing disagreement, experimentation and co-creation.
  • However, the behaviours and tactics for such stretch collaboration turn out to be the opposite of what is required for conventional collaboration, often turning the traditional playbook on its head.

To illustrate how stretch collaboration contrasts with conventional collaboration, let us take the example of the unconventional collaboration between McDonald’s and Greenpeace[2].  Back in 2006, Greenpeace launched a campaign to highlight the impact of soya bean farming on the Amazonian rainforests.  It involved two streams of activity: (1) Greenpeace campaigners, dressed as 7-foot tall chickens, chaining themselves to chairs in MacDonald’s restaurants, and (2) a report based on six years of undercover investigation, detailing the degree of rainforest devastation using aerial surveillance, satellite images and government documents.

Despite the campaign group’s confrontational approach, instead of going into ‘protection’ mode McDonald’s chose to engage with Greenpeace, arguing that they agreed with the report’s analysis but not its proposed solutions.  Greenpeace elected to work with McDonald’s to recruit other parties in the soya bean supply chain to work out how to address the issue.  A moratorium on buying soya beans from deforested Amazonian land was agreed by virtually all the parties in the whole supply chain after barely four months of discussion – virtually unheard of in the world of multi-party negotiations.  Today, the moratorium is still in place and surprisingly effective.

There are a number of unusual features that characterise this interaction that fly in the face of conventional wisdom about traditional collaboration:

  • For McDonald’s, Greenpeace is an ‘unusual suspect’: another actor who not only does not share the corporate’s goals, but actively pursues opposing objectives – at least initially.
  • For McDonald’s, trusting Greenpeace was not a prerequisite for engaging with an actor with differing opinions – at least initially.
  • McDonald’s needed to suspend disbelief, exercise humility and let go of any preconceived notions about Greenpeace for this type of stretch collaboration to work at all.

Implications for corporate affairs

For a corporate to engage in this type of collaboration, somebody within the organisation has to fill the role of internal convenor, coordinating the corporate’s coherent response.  This is a role that could be filled by corporate affairs.

Another implication is that somebody within the corporate will have to bridge the ‘ambidexterity’ between conventional collaboration and stretch collaboration.  Once again, corporate affairs could fill this role.  The evolution of the Collaborative corporate presents corporate affairs with both a challenge (resolving the contradictory demands of conventional and stretch collaboration) and an opportunity (to fill a role that will become increasingly important to harness collaborative advantage). 

The Collaborative Corporate offers the possibility of reimagining the interplay between relationships, reputation & revenue.  Corporate affairs can earn its place at the top table by showing how to link relationships & reputation (intangible assets) with revenue (financial outcomes).  If you want to find out more the Collaborative Corporate, you can download the full report here.

Ben Shenoy is a Visiting Professor of Psychological and Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics.  His work focuses on how individuals and enterprises not just survive – but actually find a way to thrive – in the face of complexity.  He can be found online at

[1] Adam Kahane, Collaborating with the Enemy: How to work with people you don’t agree with or like or trust (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2017). Kahane is the author who first coined the term ‘stretch collaboration’.  This book is an excellent description of the principles – illustrated with powerful examples – of how to work with those who have very different agendas from yourself.

[2] Langert, Bob. “Greenpeace, McDonald’s and the power of collaboration.” GreenBiz, (April 18, 2016). Langert, former head of sustainability at McDonald’s offer an illuminating account how the former ‘enemies’ Greenpeace and McDonald’s managed to find a way to collaborate with each other.

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