Effective Partnering: In Praise of Internal Politicians

By [Dave Prescott], The Partnering Initiative

TPI share their insights on building effective partnerships and why getting your own organisation behind a partnership is where most of the hard work lies. Why is building internal alignment so difficult? And how can a partnership champion or ‘internal politican’ get around the most common challenges?

The term ‘intrapreneur’ has emerged to describe people who stimulate innovation within their companies. A similar role describes the people who are able to navigate the various parts of their own organisations to enable them to engage in a partnership. Taking a cue from this recent HBR article, we can suggest the term ‘internal politician’ to describe an organisation’s partnership champion.

Based on TPI’s experience, it appears though internal work can represent a significant part, if not the majority, of the effort required to make a partnership successful. However brilliant an idea for partnership, however strong the strategic fit, however clear the mutually beneficial objectives, most time and energy usually ends up being invested on internal organisational issues.

Building internal alignment is difficult for at least two reasons: structures, and individuals. Organisational structures can either actively support or strongly block collaborative efforts. And then there’s the human beings. Factors such as communication difficulties, power dynamics, jostling for position, risk aversion, job security fears and clashing egos are all present. Add in the presence of an external partner organisation (or two, or more), where organisational structures and human beings differ, and problems can rapidly multiply.

How to get around these problems? As usual there is no silver bullet solution, but some analysis of an organisation’s structure and key individuals can help to provide useful context. One suggestion is to consider a spectrum with a high degree of centralisation of power at one end and a high degree of decentralisation at the other.

Highly centralised organisations have an obvious hierarchy and clearly delineated roles and responsibilities. Such organisations might be expected to have efficient systems to appoint the right people to a partnership role, and to enable partnerships to proceed efficiently through internal channels. But equally, the desire for centralisation and control can run counter to establishing innovative partnerships, where flexibility is required and decision-making needs to be shared.

At the other end of the spectrum, organisations can be highly federated, with country offices / departments / teams having a high degree of autonomy and their own strong views on partnership working. Some might be ideologically resistant to the idea of engaging business (or NGOs, or others), while others might take a far more pragmatic approach. In these cases, it may be a question of finding the right part of the organisation to work with, and accepting the limits to scale offered by that particular organisation.

Most organisations occupy different parts of the spectrum at different times. They may for example combine extreme hierarchy but have limited clarity on roles and responsibilities; in other cases, a highly chaotic-looking organisation may be very efficiently staffed. The same organisation may at different times demonstrate both types of characteristic, often as a result of who is in charge. And so, while a clear understanding of organisational structure can be useful, it does not in itself imply any particular course of action: it simply helps one to ask the right questions.

Beyond structural factors lurk human beings. As a rule of thumb, people who have worked in more than one sector are normally good allies in progressing a partnership agenda. It can also be useful to consider the length of staff tenure in an organisation. Some long-standing (not necessarily senior) staff with long institutional memories may know short-cuts to getting things done, which overt and covert levers to pull, and so on.

To take a specific case in point: when it comes to the business of getting a partnering agreement developed, it may not be clear whether the procurement department is the first port of call, or the sponsorship department, or the legal department. A sympathetic colleague can cut through the noise and provide clear direction; a suspicious one might do the opposite.

Some seasoned internal politicians bring cross-functional teams along with them to meetings at the early stages of a partnership, to help develop internal traction. Other internal politicians insist on being copied on all correspondence relating to the partnership, so that at least one person knows the whole history of the collaboration, and whenever an issue arises they know the full context and are able to respond accordingly.

Even those with long experience of internal politics find a lot of their time is spent on internal alignment. It is not unusual to spend twice as much time navigating the internal barriers to a partnership agenda (explaining, negotiating, persuading, reframing, insisting, selling, withholding, as necessary), compared to the relatively easy work of external engagement. In fact, if you are expending this ratio of effort, you are probably going along the right lines.

TPI has defined some ‘MUST-have’ competencies for individuals to be effective partnership practitioners. And its ‘Fit for partnering’ framework helps organisations think through the internal structural and cultural issues that enable them to be an effective partner.

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