When companies collaborate, low trust is detrimental to innovation. But so is very high trust. The optimal level, yielding maximum impact, lies in between.
The Smart microcar, invented by the tumultuous partnership between Daimler-Benz and Swatch, seems to be finally reaping the benefits of its provocative design as more consumers order this compact automobile. By contrast, the minivan codeveloped by Peugeot and Fiat (initially sold as the Peugeot 806 and the Fiat Ulysse) was the result of a harmonious relationship but never garnered much attention. It was just another minivan.
These outcomes contradict common sense as well as a large body of academic literature. The general assumption, after all, is that success grows out of good relationships — based on a common vision, cultural proximity, a sense of fairness and equity and, eventually, mutual trust — while poor cooperation and lack of trust lead to disaster. Yet examples abound of high-trust partnerships that fail to innovate and of turbulent ones that succeed. Admittedly, many factors influence the level of creativity and innovativeness of partnerships, and trust is only one of them. But it is deemed to be a central one.1
The Leading Question
Can very high trust between innovation project partners be too much of a good thing?
- Some kinds of conflict between collaborators can be good for innovation performance.
- While personality conflicts hinder innovation, conflicting opinions about tasks can spur new solutions.
- Trusting partners are more likely to commit the resources needed to implement jointly developed ideas.
Is trust in fact overrated? Is it sometimes an actual hindrance to innovation? Can we think in terms of an optimal level of trust — not too little and not too much?
Trust as a Critical Ingredient One party trusts another not only when he perceives honesty and an absence of opportunism but also when expecting that the other’s attitudes and capabilities will turn out as promised.2 For example, we need to trust that the plumbers repairing our bathroom will not overcharge us and that they have the required competencies — knowledge, acumen, equipment and supplies — to get the job done well and on time.
Trust is, above all, an interpersonal phenomenon. It occurs (or fails to occur) between individuals.