BCG Henderson Institute

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Trust, we instinctively realize, is a precious quality that binds relationships, and nowhere more so than in business ecosystems. It’s foundational, but also fragile because all the participants in an ecosystem must learn to work with, and rely on, each other, knowing that no external force compels them to do so. Mutual trust, as much as mutual interest, binds business ecosystems.

Yet few business leaders focus on fostering trust when they create and orchestrate ecosystems. Instead of systematically and specifically incorporating trust into the fabric of their ecosystems, most operate under the assumption that trust will automatically grow over time. However, trust is difficult to build—and easy to erode. When it is neglected, trust withers and distrust blooms, dooming ecosystems to failure.

Data shows that trust-related issues are a major cause of ecosystem failure. The BCG Henderson Institute (BHI) recently conducted one of the first global research projects focused on the role of trust in business ecosystems. Our analysis found that trust was a proximate factor—albeit not necessarily the root cause—in the failure of 57 of the 110 unsuccessful ecosystems that we studied.

A third of those companies, we concluded, had attributed the failure of their ecosystems—we define “failure” as the dissolution, shrinking to insignificance, or acquisition of an ecosystem for a price below the investments made in it—to making the wrong choices about ecosystem governance standards, rules, and processes. When we analyzed those cases, we found that most of them (94%) had arrived at that conclusion because of trust-related issues. Thus, our research spotlights the critical, and often neglected, role that trust plays in the failure of business ecosystems.

Of course, trust plays just as significant a role in ensuring the success of ecosystems. That became evident from the second step of our study, in which we conducted paired comparisons between 45 of the ecosystems that had failed and one purposely chosen peer ecosystem from each of the industries to which the former belonged. We found that trust mattered a great deal in the success of 73% of the ecosystems that succeeded. Like blood in biological systems, trust is critical to keeping ecosystems alive and working.

Based on our research, this article offers a systematic process that business leaders can use to design and manage trust in ecosystems, thereby setting themselves up for sustained success.

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