Later this year I am working in two new collaborative ventures. Both are with people I admire, respect and trust. Both involve work that I enjoy. Effective partnership practice will maximise the benefits and minimise the challenges, although the latter do exist in any embryonic and even on-going partnership. So, what would you say were the most challenging things about partnership working?
I hope you find them helpful.
Appropriate time, energy and resources
Partnership building needs high levels of time, energy and resources – and this may create pressure for you and your already overburdened staff if any are involved. Be sure to assess these needs carefully and openly in your early discussion about the partnership. It helps to build trust, which is the most invaluable commodity in any partnership engagement.
Managing power and authority
Power and authority issues may arise, as unforeseen circumstances can occur that early discussions have not foreseen. Also, some partners may have more ‘clout’ than others and try to dominate proceedings, and may well succeed! I have seen this happen formally in meetings or by ‘politicking’ between meetings. If you are working in a consortium of large and small organisations, might the smaller entities feel this way about your larger organisation or vice versa if you are the smaller entity? I have also experienced occasions where the authority to act was not clearly agreed initially, leading to later tensions in the partnership. Spelling out who can do what is the best approach in my experience, and embedding that agreement in a partnership document makes for easier mediation or negotiation at some future point.
Reducing competitiveness and defensiveness
I have often experienced apprehension and antagonism among staff that are wary of compromising ‘the way we do things around here’ [their organisational culture], which can result in undercurrents, and occasionally explicit instances of competitiveness and defensiveness. There may be similar worries about compromising professional identity, especially in multi-stakeholder partnerships. Often, we sublimate operational differences and values in the interests of the partnership, and this can build up tensions and stresses. Youth workers, for example, used to assert that their values of open-ended and empowering relationships with young people were different from the instrumental, fixed-length arrangements of police officers. Is this type of tension evident in your partnership arrangements? Being open to learning and experimentation, less rigidity and formality, and open and honest communication helps enormously in my experience lessen the impact of such professional differences.
Leading and managing joint teams
In my experience, management and leadership are grey areas in most forms of partnership. No-one has power and authority over partner’s staff. Therefore, where staff teams are involved, it is important to get lines of authority and responsibility clear. It is also helpful to be open to mediating issues as they arise and deal with them promptly, as they have a habit of festering into something more ugly if left for too long.
Agreeing on joint targets
In situations where smaller parties make a contribution to a larger partnership, there are bound to be differences between the contributions made. That will more often be the case when the partnership is operating beyond a local level, say through to a regional, national or international level. Critical to a sound agreement is the level of synergy between the respective partners, and partners must work to ensure that this is strongly maintained and upheld.
Managing conflicts of interest
The partnership is rarely the only enterprise engaged in by a given organisation. I will continue to trade under my brand name, separately to the two new collaborative ventures I noted at the start of this article. Conflicts of interest, therefore, have the potential to arise, say if I accepted a commission from a leading competitor of the organisation I was working with collaboratively. Being clear about the founding principles of the partnership should address any likelihood of conflict of interesting arising.
Managing levels of risk
The drive to be more innovative can occasionally mean higher levels of risk as agencies move into uncharted waters. One partner may be more risk averse than another or others. Alternately, the leading partner may manage risk more loosely than its other partners. What will exacerbate this situation is a lack of written agreements. So ensuring these are in place before the commencing of operational activity is a must.
Avoiding groupthink and managing consensus
My experience of partnerships has taught me that collaboration could occasionally result in groupthink, the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group, resulting typically in unchallenged, poor-quality decision-making. It has also taught me that avoiding or postponing difficult decisions occur where consensus is valued too highly. Agree on a mechanism for breaking the deadlock in discussions around decision-making and abide by it whether you gain or lose is my best advice.
Managing perceptions of control
I have experienced unease concerning governance arrangements that led to feelings of ‘loss of control’. However, typically in collaborative processes, one or more partners may have more to give and others more to gain. Unfortunately, this can lead to resentments – particularly if those who contribute more in a financial sense also expect to have more influence in how the partnership operates. I have seen those whose main contribution is information rather than resources hold back on information sharing for fear of ceding, even more, influence. Small organisations occasionally engage in collaborative approaches because they feel they should. Otherwise, they might miss out! However, this doesn’t lessen their fear of loss of control. If anything, it makes it greater.
Valuing each other
I believe and know from experience that partners in a collaborative process need to value each other’s contribution, however, great or small. It must happen, openly, regularly and consistently. Where their contribution to partnerships appears less well valued, or appears less highly valued as those of the larger organisation, then tensions will arise. So, be sure to recognise the role and impact of each contribution all partners make to the collaborative process and lead this by example.
I hope you found this list helpful? It is by no means exhaustive, though it does set out the key challenges I have experienced over many years of working in different kinds of partnership. However, I know, from that experience, that the new ventures facing me in the coming months will grow and flourish, because of the foundations set out at their start.
I would welcome your thoughts and comments as always. If I can help you in any way with current challenges you face today, please reach out to me on 07958 765972 or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org – I am always happy to listen and ready to help.