Simon Bartlett Co-Founder and Partner at WBMV Consulting.
5 min read
Over the course of my career I've been involved in creating, leading and executing a multitude of different partnerships. From global partnerships between iconic brands and legendary film franchises, to joint cause marketing initiatives between retail customers and NGOs, to enabling alliances between funders and entrepreneurs, or convening complex multi-stakeholder partnerships that connected governments, social entrepreneurs, NGO's, and private sector multinationals.
No matter the type, scale, or organizational make-up of the partnership, I've found that the most successful have always had a set of common ingredients at their core.
1. Strategic alignment.
Without alignment, up front, on why a proposed partnership makes sense, the relationship is almost certainly going to fail. For me, strategic alignment falls into two broad buckets. First, it's crucial that each prospective partner is transparent from the outset about their motivation to partner.
While working on a recent Social Business initiative, I was always very clear from the outset that we were looking to grow the commercial business and have a positive social economic impact through a market-based approach. If potential partners fundamentally disagreed with that approach then we found out pretty quickly that further talks were not going to be fruitful, and we could bring the discussions to a quick close in an appropriate way.
Second, but equally as important, is that both sides also need to be comfortable with the values of their proposed partner. Spend some time with them outside of the work environment if you can, even if it’s just going for a quick coffee or lunch. Get to know the person behind the position. If you're not aligned around these two areas then you’re starting off on the wrong foot and the chances are, you're ultimately going to be wasting everyone's time and effort in pursuing a productive partnership.
Aligning around the bigger strategic picture also has the additional benefit in that it invariably becomes easier down the road to resolve any ‘speed bumps’ in the relationship. With a shared sense of purpose to the partnership you can always go back and remind yourselves of why it was you agreed to go down this path together in the first place, and hopefully resolve these smaller issues.
2. Value alignment.
You've got strategic alignment, so now you need to demonstrate and align on the value that each of you are bringing to the partnership. Whether it's money, expertise, access, connections, value in kind or any other form of value, it's only of value in the context of the partnership if the other party sees it as such. If you haven't done your homework to understand your potential partner and their wants or needs, you run the risk of talking past them with what you propose to bring to the table. Be prepared to think creatively, and be flexible with your perspective on what constitutes value. As the saying goes, ‘one person’s trash is another person’s treasure’.
3. Clear roadmap.
Developing a clear roadmap including goals, decision points, metrics, monitoring and evaluation and a plan to scale or exit, is integral to the success of the partnership. It's this roadmap that serves as a reminder of why the partnership exists and helps everyone involved to stay on track or course correct if needed. The aim of the partnership is ultimately to create something of greater value for all involved, and a clear roadmap helps keep you focused on the bigger picture.
4. Defined role sort.
Who is the primary point of contact for each organization? Who is accountable for specific workstreams within the project? How are decisions made? Who needs to be consulted or informed in the decision-making process? What's the protocol for external communication? All these questions and more need to be answered early on in the partnership. Addressing these questions as part of a simple responsibility matrix can facilitate an efficient and effective running of the partnership. As you develop your approach you need to recognize and account for the fact that each party to the partnership likely has a different way of working based on their personal or organizational culture and processes. Finding a happy balance to the approach could make all the difference to how difficult, or easy, the partnership is to manage.
5. Constant communication.
As anyone who has ever been in a relationship can attest, misunderstandings occur even with the most frequent and open communication. So, when there is insufficient or poor communication, assumptions can rapidly start to take root and before you know it, what was considered a very trivial matter has escalated to the point where the entire relationship is put at risk. Building trust is hard and it takes time, yet it's very easy to undermine. When you have different personalities, organizations and cultures working together then it only amplifies the risk inherent in poor or infrequent communication. Make sure that you have open and frequent lines of communication and don't be afraid to overcommunicate. It doesn’t have to be complicated either. On one project we instigated a simple routine of a regular 30-minute weekly call, only between the two project leads, so that they could get to know each other better, strengthen their ties, and nip any issues or misunderstandings in the bud.
6. The right people
Successful partnerships have the right people involved from the outset and in the day to day running and execution of the partnership. You may have all the other right ingredients, but if you have the wrong ‘chef’ mixing them together, your end product will likely not be to your taste. In my experience the right people need to combine strong project management skills with strong emotional intelligence, a belief in the partnership and a desire to make it work. They should be open-minded, entrepreneurial, comfortable with ambiguity, and good people managers. They need to be able to move the project forward, or slow it down to ensure everyone is on board, or to step in and play the role of mediator or counsellor. The closer you are to this type of profile, the better off the partnership will be.
7. Address disagreements early.
I'm not talking here about the strategic alignment issues; I'm talking about the little issues that pop up in any relationship. Bad news doesn't get better over time so the sooner you address issues, the better. A few years ago, a good friend of mine received some wise advice from her father on her wedding day, "Never go to sleep on an argument". I'd say that same sound advice contributes to the recipe for success in business partnerships too.
Simon Bartlett is Co-Founder and Partner at WBMV, a consulting firm that helps organizations achieve their goals through partnership-driven solutions.
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
More to come soon!