Too many people think in terms of trade-offs that if you do something which is good for you, then it must be bad for someone else. That’s not right and it comes from old thinking about the way the world works…We have to snap out of that old thinking and move to a new model.
Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever
Many partnerships, from marriages to business mergers and from professional partnership organisations to public service organisations partnering to provide joint ‘leadership of a place’ start with good intent but descend into ‘trade-offs’ and transactional bartering of what each partner needs from the other. In this short blog I explore how all forms of partnership need a purpose greater than the parts as well as processes for regularly renewing the synergy of the partnership.
Whether in business or in marriages, founding partners often think they are the ones who have created the partnership, but for the partnership to begin and be successful, a third vital element beyond the partners is even more important in its formation.
This third element is a collective purpose. It is the answer to the questions:
- “What can we do together through collaboration that we cannot achieve by working in parallel?”
- “Who and what does our partnership serve?”
Despite the growth of partnerships in all sectors of the economy, there has been very limited research on how to create effective partnerships that realize potential synergies and little development in how to effectively coach partnerships. Increasingly my colleagues and I have been applying the ‘five-disciplines’ model (Hawkins; 2011, 2014, 2017) to coaching partnerships both in how they form and develop as well as how they resolve conflict.
Many partnerships fail to adequately define the core mission that the partnership is there to serve or to create. Ismail (2014) redefines the mission as the partnership’s ‘Massive Transformational Purpose’ – the endeavour that creates great beneficial impact for all the partnership’s stakeholders at the same time as transforming the partners and their ways of relating to others. This creates the galvanising force and collective buy-in that gives a partnership its momentum. It also needs to be a strong enough motivator to keep the partners fully engaged and committed, even when an avalanche of urgent issues tempts them away or when the dynamics of the partnership become tough. The commission or collective purpose of a partnership does not usually come from further up the hierarchy but from a massive challenge in the wider eco-system that requires multi-organizational collaboration.
The collective purpose that is formed by a partnership in response to this challenge needs to be one that:
- Is only achieved by working together and not by partners working separately or in parallel.
- All partners recognise and define in an aligned way.
- All partners are committed to and will prioritise over ‘business as usual’ items within their own organization.
Too often partnerships (including marriages) start in a contractual way with each partner saying what they want from the partnership. This creates a negotiated transaction between the parties. For a partnership to be transformational the partners need to develop their ‘future-back’ and ‘outside-in’ strategy – addressing questions such as:
- Who and what does our partnership serve?
- What can we achieve together that we cannot achieve apart?
- What massive transformational purpose can we pursue together?
- How will we know the partnership is successful?
- What criteria will we use to evaluate our collective success?
Too many partnerships start their thinking from inputs into outputs. Instead they need to try working backwards along the continuum from ‘value-creation’ to outcomes by agreeing the necessary outputs they need to collectively deliver and the inputs or resources which are required to achieve this.
A partnership needs to clarify how this strategy can be developed into agreed strategic objectives with action plans and measurable targets, and clear roles and responsibilities
Inter-group dynamics are not only critical internally within organizations but also between multiple organizations that constitute partnerships. Increasingly organizations have a wide and diverse number of often quite complex partnerships with other organizations. One large drinks company I worked with was using competitors as bottlers in one part of the world, distributors in another and as a joint venture partner in a third area. Elsewhere they competed fiercely for market share. This required a sophisticated and mature way of managing partnerships.
In the public sector where independent services are expected to deliver more at higher quality but with less finance and resources, they are finding they need to work closely in partnership with other agencies to create savings, remove duplication of effort and create synergies in delivery of service.
There has also been a growing recognition of the importance of public sector organizations working together to deliver ‘leadership of place’. The UK’s public sector focussed Leadership Centre writes:
A sustained period of constrained public finances means we need to look beyond any single organization’s resources for solving problems. And the nature of the major challenges we face means they cannot be met by one agency alone. Our focus has rightly shifted away from organizational structures towards people and places, so across the public sector we need to learn to work together in different ways. And we need to do it fast and wide. (www.leadershipcentre.org.uk)
A partnership needs to develop effective ways of co-creating in which meetings do not become dominated by bureaucratic governance but generatively create new forms of response that their individual partner organizations could not have arrived at by themselves.
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Successful partnerships always focus on who they are there to serve rather than just on each other. A coach needs to help a partnership to keep focused on this.
A partnership needs to be connecting with all its stakeholders in a way that represents all the constituent members, not just their own organization. Effective partnerships I have coached have moved beyond ‘representative’ members going back to their ‘constituencies’ to brief ‘their people’ and consult. They have developed joint statements from all members and new forms of engagement which entail joint cross-organizational presentations, communication and engagement events to the various organizations and the wider stakeholders.
Finally, a partnership needs to have regular reviews, attending to its own core learning and performance improvement. Many of the approaches for carrying out board reviews can be adapted to coaching the core learning of a partnership. Other embedded core learning methods can also be built into partnership meetings, such as ‘time-outs’, process checks, process consultancy.
What is important however, is that the core learning is not just for a partnership’s internal representational members, but must be generated in dynamic co-creation between all its constituent member organizations, as well as all the customers/clients and other stakeholders for whom it is there to create value for.
A few years back I was privileged to be the celebrant for a couple who wanted to have a spiritual wedding that would speak to the many different beliefs of their community. They came on retreat to design their unique ceremony. I posed them two questions to explore before we were ready to co-design the ceremony:
“Who and what does your relationship serve?”
“What is the truth your relationship needs to express to your wider community?”
These questions took them into a rich collaborative inquiry, by the end of the week they and their relationship were ready to co-create a truly moving wedding ceremony.
These two questions are core to all partnerships – whether marriages, joint ventures, mergers or joint leadership of place. As my wife and I reach our fortieth wedding anniversary, I realise that we need to ask ourselves these questions not only at the beginning of our partnership but at regular intervals to redefine and determine the changing purpose of the partnership and the ever changing needs of those our relationship serves.
Professor Peter Hawkins
This article is based on some of my new writing in the third edition of Leadership Team Coaching: Developing Collective Transformational Leadership which will be published by Kogan Page in July 2017 (already on Amazon for pre-order)