I was recently set an interesting challenge, as part of a conversation on good collaboration: in under four hundred words to come up with 10 clear steps that organisations could follow to create the ‘perfect partnership’.
Let’s get one thing clear. The Partnering Initiative has worked with hundreds of organisations and partnerships for over a decade and we have never come across a perfect partnership. In all but the simplest collaborations, problems, inefficiencies, issues to overcome will always arise. This is not surprising. The intricate dynamics of partnerships are constantly changing within a complex and often muddled set of influencing factors: the socio-economic-political context; the varying characteristics, needs and resources of the partners, donors and stakeholders; shifting partner priorities and commitment; and key people leaving and arriving – resulting in the need to rebuild relationships and understanding, as well as bringing a different set of personality, time availability and skills into the mix.
Real partnerships, therefore, are always messy and always throwing up challenges.
However, partnering is no longer the experiment it once was. To a greater or lesser extent we (the partnering community) know what works and what doesn’t work, what it takes to ensure partnerships deliver the maximum value to their partners and other beneficiaries and how to create robust partnerships that can adapt, iterate and absorb shocks whether external or internal.
Here, therefore, is my response to the challenge: my top 10 steps for developing strong and effective collaboration – not perfect partnership, but perfect-enough partnership. And, in best ice-bucket tradition, I now pass this challenge on to you: what’s your top 10 list in under 400 words?
- Know and respect your partners: understand where your interests align and where they differ; the resources and value they bring; their culture; their specific drivers for engagement; as well as their limitations and internal challenges. And be open and transparent about your own drivers, value and limitations to help build trust. If you find your underlying values are simply too different – walk away.
- Ensure that all partners have the knowledge and skills around the process of partnering to agree principles and co-create the partnership. Specialist, independent partnership facilitators can help take partners more efficiently through the process of building a robust, effective partnership and are essential for complex arrangements.
- Identify clear partnership objectives that deliver results and offer significant value to each of the partners, and include specific measurable goals to track progress and demonstrate success and value-add to each partner. Remember that different partners may have different reporting needs and all needs should be respected.
- Co-create a partnering agreement that sets out clear roles and responsibilities along with objectives and a governance/decision-making structure that ensures proper accountability and efficient delivery. Appreciate that partnerships tend to be iterative in design and the agreement will need to adapt.
- Start small and scale up to allow partners to develop effective relationships, build up trust, and test and adjust the partnership’s operational and governance arrangements before moving to more ambitious plans.
- Build strong institutional commitment by the partners by identifying the clear value of the partnership to each partner’s priorities, widening engagement beyond an in an individual person by engaging senior champions, and integrating where possible with other partner activities.
- Ensure the highest standard of project management to support a task-focused approach, with partners actively engaged in delivering time-limited tangible and practical results.
- Embed the highest standards of relationship management to ensure that partners are kept fully engaged and valued, the principles of partnership – equity, transparency, and mutual benefit – are achieved, and that any issues can be recognised and dealt with early.
- Ensure strong communication both within the partnership – contributing to the project and the relationship management – and externally to celebrate success and continue to build buy-in with other stakeholders.
- Build in ongoing review, including ‘health checks’ to assess the partnership, ensure partners are receiving value, the operations are efficient and the partnership is on track to deliver its objectives, and adjust as necessary.
Darian Stibbe is Executive Director of The Partnering Initiative, a centre of excellence working globally to drive effective cross-sector collaboration for a sustainable future.
The Partnering Initiative and Business Fights Poverty are running two partnership training courses on 13th-15th April and 19th-21st October in Oxford, UK. For further information, please go to: http://partnerinit.org/training