Every partnership starts with the realisation that an objective could be better achieved by working together, leveraging each partner’s strengths. This realisation can happen based on personal encounters, strategic analysis or simply coincidence. Nevertheless, it can be a long way from having an idea for a partnership to successfully implementing it.
Key aspects in the pioneering stage of cross-sector partnerships:
Setting assumptions aside
When different parties join the table, they bring different motives, goals and strategies. During the first phase of building a partnership, seemingly simple things such as setting aside assumptions and really listening to each other’s perspectives are crucial to lay the groundwork. People from different organisational cultures with their respective “languages” and organisational cultures need to learn to understand each other and to overcome prejudices to do so (“Government is always slow and bureaucratic”, “Private sector is only interested in profits”, etc).
Building empathy and personal relationships
To produce the hoped-for outcomes, individuals must be ready to question their own hard-won beliefs and ways of thinking. Dynamic partnerships are based on a thorough understanding of what the others at the table need and want to take out of the joint project; of what are their strengths and where their pain points are. This requires empathy, which is based on personal relationships and connections that need to evolve over time. But in practice, there’s little space for empathy and team building: cross-sector partnerships are often top-heavy, involve extensive planning exercises that drain energy in the very beginning, and are thus not thoroughly rooted in a sufficient understanding of each other.
Supporting change agents
In most partnerships, there are discrepancies in power and authority that need to be balanced. Often it is not enough that the people at the table love the idea – they also need to sell it to their internal stakeholders. Underestimating approval processes is an easy trap to fall into: Many times change agents need to convince superiors, search for like-minded people, build alliances and lobby for support within their own organisation. All this also needs to be considered before jump-starting joint projects.
Creating space to prototype and learn
Once personal relationships are built and common goals are agreed upon, things should get practical fast. In most cases, there is limited time allocated to foster innovative project proposals and limited space allowed to prototype and to practically learn from mistakes. Different parties try to stick to their pre-formulated goals and success matrices (like for example KPIs), and get lost in planning instead of creating a flexible space that allows for common action. Trial and error includes risk, but provides the opportunity to understand the challenge addressed more deeply.
Partnerships are startups!
Here, startups are an interesting learning field for us. How do they start? Somebody has an idea and convinces others that the idea is something the world needs. Slowly, the founding team elaborates ideas into plans, convinces supporters and stakeholders and – hopefully – financiers. In the best case scenario they improvise a lot, fail, learn from their mistakes and adapt their solutions. In the process, the team gets to know each other much better, builds trust and develops its own modes of communicating and organising. In the beginning, this form of working together is very informal, spontaneous, non-hierarchical and intimate. It encourages prototyping and out-of-the box thinking rather than the fear to fail or restrictions to success matrices. This creative vibe and team spirit is one reason why this form of working is so popular amongst younger job-seekers, and explains why team cohesion is so strong in young startups.
5 things we can learn from startups to make partnerships work:
Provide time and space for team building: Opportunities to build up personal relationships between the team members of all parties are not a secondary matter, they are essential for teamwork and project outcomes.
Give ownership to the team: A non-hierarchical environment and behavior fosters innovation and creativity.
Get active: Learning by doing creates ownership and a feeling of togetherness.
Encourage failing forward: Improvisation is a virtue, not something we need to avoid. Failing is part of the learning process. Don’t bind the team to success KPIs from the very beginning.
Provide the right space: A flexible working environment encourages “outside the box” thinking.
In our next article, we will take a closer look at how partnerships between unlikely allies can be practically implemented and facilitated, keeping our learnings in mind.
> 1 more article for Volume 2 coming up! It will answer the question of the HOW – so check back here again.
To deep dive into the topic, find our handbook on co-creating successful projects between public sector, private sector and civil society here.
This article is part of our THE BEYOND series – a series we brought to life to take you on a journey beyond the known allies, the countries we live in, the current methods and tools, the new technologies, the digital transformation and the unicorns. Beyond the buzzwords. This edition of The BEYOND has been co-created with Christian Koch, Impact Hub member and cooperation management expert.
We’ll be sharing insights, learnings and research from our work and from within our ecosystem. Each volume of THE BEYOND will bring you up to speed about a core topic through a series of articles and a closing event. We want to inspire you to take a look beyond: step out of the framework, identify new opportunities, discuss the challenges of tomorrow and find solutions to create a future that works for all. We are on the transition team – we invite you to be part of it.
It’s time to explore BEYOND!