We’ve been a part of establishing dozens of strategic partnerships between people, organizations, companies, non-profits and interest groups. Some have worked extremely well, while others have been well-intentioned but ultimately unsatisfying. In looking back on the best and worst, there are a few key principles that have guided the design and execution of the best partnerships.
And as with much of what we talk about, strategic is the key word and guiding framework for these sorts of agreements. Having an overarching vision and purpose of what you want/need to accomplish will help to make decisions about the direction of a partnership, and oftentimes will help you to decipher whether the partnership can actually work. So here are three foundational elements to consider when pursuing any partnership.
1) Transparency: Everyone involved needs to be able to speak directly to their ultimate goals, and what they hope to accomplish through the partnership. This is a foundational issue, and one that establishes trust, open communication and efficiency in designing a partnership. For example, when working on behalf of film clients, I’ve set up dozens of alignments and/or partnerships with non-profits and faith-based groups. It does me no good to pretend that the base line goal of a film is anything other than getting people to theaters and buying a ticket. We may desire some further result of how a film motivates viewers to consider something that the film addresses, but if nobody sees the film, that will never happen. Pretending that there’s any other overarching goal makes me suspect to any potential partner.
Likewise, I need to hear clearly from a partner what they want/need to achieve, and how they can benefit from a working relationship. This is where listening to and understanding what is important to a potential partner is crucial. I may have an idea of something that I think is a great way for a partner to engage, but if that idea isn’t important to a partner, then I’m spinning my wheels and merely basking in my own cleverness, and that does nothing but waste time and show that I’m not listening.
We can (and should) have a grown-up conversation about what’s most important. If this phase shows that there’s really no sensible way to work together, then that saves everyone time and potential ill-will.
Look out for each other
2) Mutuality: This goes hand in hand with transparency. Because once you articulate what’s important to accomplish, you have to do an honest assessment of whether that can be done to each party’s satisfaction. You can work with, morph, rework and reshape a partnership to find ways to address your core goals, but if all parties aren’t benefitting in ways that are understood, agreed to and deemed fair, then the aforementioned wheels are back to spinning and not propelling you forward.
To be sure, there are some times when partnerships are done simply because people or organizations like one another and want to help out. But the most effective are ones where everyone is invested in and sees the things important to them advanced. I often say that if everyone isn’t benefitting, then it’s a one-way sales job and not really a partnership. How you achieve mutuality is a wide-open landscape where creativity, negotiation and imagination run free, but that you achieve it is crucial.
3) Measurability: When purpose and goals are agreed to, it’s time to make sure that each party knows what they’ve agreed to do, and can tell their new partner how they intend to do that. A calendar of deliverables, point people to take responsibility for delivery, and the ability for those point people to make things happen are some basic ways of following through on this. Be specific. Be upfront if there are roadblocks or delays. Nail things down ahead of schedule when possible to keep the energy and momentum of a campaign going.
As I said earlier, these are basics, and they may seem obvious. But the fact of the matter is that anxiety, fear, and misdirected desire can often take you off course and forget these things. We want so badly to see some things work, and we’re certain that if everyone can just see our own vision, then it will work perfectly. But that’s not the reality of things. Partnerships should be constructed strategically, so that the decisions along the way are measured against a guiding plan, and not merely as tactical steps that can threaten to neglect the overarching goals.