When you are the Founder/CEO of an entity with a name ‘ The Agency of the Future ‘ and passionately champion social initiatives through a purposefully provocative titled firm called ‘ Pimp My Cause ‘, you have a premonition of what’s in store. Paul Skinner lives up to the billing and more in this heart to heart conversation for BrandKnew(published by ISD Global). When the rest of the world seem to be missing the wood for the trees under the burden of competition, Paul brings to fore the power of collaboration as the next, new, big, much needed..so go on, collaborate!
BK: Could you pl tell us a bit about your growing up years? What/who were your childhood aspirations & inspirations?
PS: My childhood hero was an Egyptian doctor called Magdi Yacoub. He was a pioneering transplant surgeon, traveling the world in his own helicopter to perform breakthrough life-saving surgery and who now well into retirement age still leads a team of research scientists. He operated on my father in one of the early heart transplants, extending his life by thirty years.
The operation was also made possible by the ‘donor card’ system of organ donations in the UK: a powerful cooperation-enabling idea for our common good that has its counterpart in so many nations of the world. Perhaps that was an early inspiration for my book!
BK: Collaborative Advantage is your first book, right? Could you share with us the motivation behind the book and what the experience in bringing the book to life was?
PS: The most difficult part of writing a book is probably not the writing of the book itself but the identification of a ‘book-worthy’ idea in the first place. I had been working with the concept of Collaborative Advantage for nearly ten years and saw how it could transform the success of any organisation. I couldn’t just sit on an idea like that and in the end it became too frustrating NOT to write the book so I got to work on doing the idea as much justice as I could for a broader audience than the range of clients and partners than I can work with directly.
BK: Since we are in a continuously evolving ‘ Collaboration/Sharing Economy ‘, do you a sequel to the book on the cards?
PS: Every day that passes we become even more inter-dependent and inter-connected. The solutions to our greatest problems in business and society are rarely available to any of us by working alone. That means we depend on fostering shared purpose which will indeed be centre-stage in my next book.
Where Collaborative Advantage asks how we can grow more quickly by better harnessing the collective value-creating potential of the world outside as well as inside the business, my next book will look more deeply at what kinds of changes and propositions we should seek to create in the first place if we want to achieve extradorinary success in today’s operating environment.
BK: Over the years the refrain has been Competitive Advantage and Sustainable Competitive Advantage- why did you want to break that mould and talk Collaborative Advantage?
PS: ‘Competition’ as an idea works well for things like a 100m sprint, where we ultimately depend on our own performance alone and where the rules of the game are tightly defined. Today’s business world however does not ressemble that at all.
We rarely want to play the same game as other businesses, because that just leads to price wars and value extraction. Competitive Advantage is no longer as sustainable as your question may imply because the length of time we can hold onto it has diminished ever since the idea was first introduced. Competitive Advantage has also been associated with negative externalities ranging from local pollution to climate change. The concept fails to take into account the effect of radical disruption from outside our own industry. And most of all it limits our perceptions of what is possible by causing us to overlook much of the value that we can create with and through the entire business and human eco-system in which we operate.
It has become more and more apparent to me that the time has come to identify an approach to strategy that begins by taking this fundamental inter-connectedness into account and removes the upper ceiling on the success we can create by de-coupling our ultimate potential from the limitations of our own budgets, resources and internal perceptions.
BK: Over the years you have worked with and consulted both for profits and not for profits like the UN, Save the Children etc- what is it that these organisations can learn from each other? and how to address many of the cross-cutting issues that businesses were not necessarily created to deal with and yet find themselves having to cope with.
PS: The greatest breakthroughs come from bringing different worlds together – different worlds of perspectives, expertise, capabilities, resources and cultures.
As you say, the business world needs to understand how to operate in an environment of complex problems, ranging from environmental resource depletion to the mental health of its staff. It can learn a huge amount from organisations dedicated to dealing with exactly these issues and find new legitimacy from partnerships that build trust among their stakeholders and enable them to efficiently and effectively achieve their goals.
The business world also has a lot to learn from non-profits in terms of how to understand and empower people in all phases of life. Most countries of the world face the economic challenge of a rapidly ageing population for example: what kinds of new products, services and patterns of work will accommodate the needs of nations where the majority of people are over 50 years old and where an entire generation may expect to live to 100?
And non-profits need increasingly to understand the private sector, firstly because they need to work with its resources to achieve success on the scale required by the problems they seek to solve and secondly because they increasingly need to develop their own social enterprise business models to drive their own financial sustainability.
BK: In our brand consultancy practice @ ISD Global, we have been espousing ‘ RIP Competition ‘- now it’s all about ‘ coopetition’- the letter m is not relevant- what is your take on this line of thinking?
PS: I like the concept. It gives people something familiar and pairs it with something unfamiliar. And it reflects the underlying truth that value creation is now almost always a far more collective process than we previously assumed. We are increasingly likely to find ourselves out of our depth and out of our breadth if we try to succeed alone.
BK: Your initiative Pimp My Cause is a purposefully, provocative title – how typically do business leaders and organisations respond to this noble quest?
PS: Pimp My Cause is a voluntary initiative but which is also really a living laboratory of fresh insight into Collaborative Advantage. It brings professional marketers together with good causes they can support while getting even better at marketing in the process. The name is based on the cult MTV show Pimp My Ride in which an expert team of mechanics re-vamped the battered up cars of selected viewers. The idea of course was to be the Pimp My Ride of charity marketing, inviting marketers to enjoy using their skills to transform the success of small charities and social enteprises with little or no marketing budgets.
Marketers have now contributed over £5 million expertise unlocking over £20m of social value creation in support of 2,500 charities and social enterprises – not bad for a voluntary platform.
We now plan to build on some of the events and challenge programmes we have run to foster a whole tribe of marketers and businesses working more collectively to achieve shared goals for positive change for the world, for marketing and for themselves.
BK: A couple of weeks ago, BrandKnew was in Conversation with Martina Olbertova who runs this organisation called Meaning. Global- Do you see Purpose and Meaning being two sides of the same coin? And are brands and marketers waking upto the true potential with purpose?
PS: Purpose gives us our ‘reason why’ and meaning explains the significance of that purpose, so of course they are connected.
Too often however, marketers who focus on brand purpose are starting in thr wrong place with too much of an inward focus. From the perspective of Collaborative Advantage, the key question to ask would be ‘whose purpose is it anyway?’.
More value is created by customers than suppliers: if I’m a construction business for example, I can’t sell my services unless a customer can create more value with the building I can construct for them than it costs them to buy my services.
So it makes sense to begin with a customer’s purpose and then work backwards from there: how can that purpose be better empowered? What new opportunities for innovation could that create? How can this create shared value with partners and other stakeholders to create additional mutual benefits along the way?
BK: You are putting Charles Darwin on the spot with the ‘ Survival of the Friendliest ‘, a theme that you use for keynotes- could you please elaborate more on the origin of this thought?
PS: The evolutinary concept of the ‘survival of the fittest’ points to the incremental improvements that come from natural selection through the survival of life forms that are better adapted to their environment. This overlooks the creative process however that brings each of these life forms into being! Evolution is perhaps more a ‘snuggle for survival’ than a ‘struggle for survival’. The success we enjoy as humans compared to other species derives less from our physical ability to compete (many animals can outperform us in speed, strength or stamina) and more from our advanced capacity for cooperation with each other at a scale and complexity that no other species has developed, which is of course made possible by our facility for conceptual thought and language which have enabled us to collectively create our modern world.
In today’s inter-connected environment, most value creation depends primarily on acts of reciprocity and cooperation: our success is determined by who we are working with rather than by who we are working against. This capacity to combine our value creation efforts is the greatest accelerator of our evolutionary progress.
BK: Purpose for brands sounds very esoteric while brand equity and brand valuation are narratives well understood and acknowledged in today’s context- you say the twain should and can meet- could you expand on this?
PS: Brand equity and brand value are wonderfully interesting concepts and metrics – if you happen to own or lead the brand in question! For anyone else they are utterly irrelevant and are therefore not levers that can be pulled to better engage with stakeholders, from customers to communites and even to employees who may not always see a correlation between brand value and their own role and employment conditions.
As long as we remember that purpose needs to be shared by everyone on whom we depend upon for our success, beginning with our customers themselves, then it can open the door to goals that unite us with all our key stakeholders in a tangible vision for positive change.
BK: We are seeing a definite shift in consumption behaviour patterns from ‘ ownership ‘ to ‘ experiences ‘- in your understanding, are brands and organisations seeing and adapting to this tectonic shift ?
PS: The value of a product or service does not lie in its supply but in its usage. That is one part of the shift from Competitve Advantage, which is all about the value we inside the business create, to Collaborative Advantage which seeks first to understand the value the end customer wishes to actively create and then finds the best way to enable that.
There is no opportunity to supply any offering unless the customer is able to use it to create a greater value to themselves than it costs them in the first place. This is true for the shift from ownership to experience; to what we’ve come to call the collaboration economy; and indeed fundamentally for all businesses: disruption is coming your way soon!
BK: Museum of Brands is a great concept- could you share what your role with them is about?
PS: The Museum of Brands engages the public with the role brands have played in society throughout history and up to the present day. I sit on the advisory board to help them find new ways to bring this to life for today’s generations. The junction point between brands and the public is a rich place for reflection. What I most see when I watch people walk through the Museum is people stopping to talk about the brands and products of their childhoods, remembering who they were with, what they were doing and what was going on the the world at the time. The more brands can wrap themselves around our own interests and priorities and make a contribution to the change going on around us the more Collaborative Advantage they wll create.
BK: Could you tell us about the books and people who have inspired your life and career?
PS: One of the most fun things about my work is that almost anything can count as research – so things like watching a film, a visit to the theatre, participation in a debate or reading a great new book somehow straddle my work and personal interests.
By reminding us that we depend on the responses and actions of others to achieve our success, Collaborative Advantage particularly opens the door to the value of greate storytelling that can involve and inspire the people we most need and expands the contribution that stakeholder influence can make across all our activity streams. So I’ve always been inspired by the world’s great writers.
Last night for example I was drawing inspiration from the way the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges played with concepts of infinity in stories such as the Garden of Forking Paths. There is a lot of uncertainty in the world right now, but at the same time the opportunities to create breakthrough success have never been greater.
BK: What makes Paul Skinner go ‘ Wow, another day at work ‘ ?
PS: I most thrive when dealing with problems that I can describe as ‘excitingly difficult’ and with people who really want to find the right answers to the questions they face. The opportunity for thinking and acting from first principles opens the doors to radical positive change – that’s the lifeblood of my work.
BK: What do you do in your spare time? Your leisure time pursuits?
PS: As well as taking an active interest in the world around me whether that’s in my community, country or internationally, I also try to balance that by taking an interest in my own inner life. I meditate every day which is a major driver of my creativity and helps me find balance and stillness in an ever more complex world.
You’ll also find me at the gym or on a tennis court to restore a more physical balance to a life where I spend so much time in thought.
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