THE BEYOND vol. 2 / Article 3: How
5 September 2019 - Impact Hub Berlin

In the first two articles of this series we have made the claim that partnerships are like start-ups. But how can we translate this spirit into practice? We suggest a five-step process rooted in the Design Thinking methodology, with strong facilitation taking place on “neutral ground”, i.e. in a creative space, hub or lab.

Setting assumptions aside in the Download phase // The process starts by encouraging key actors to reflect upon own assumptions and prejudices about the other party or parties involved, as well as upon own motives and goals. Here, each party is given a safe space to articulate their assumptions through the use of templates and guiding questions. These are not shared yet, but merely serve as a reflection tool before entering the process.

Building empathy and personal relationships in the Discover and Define phase // The Discover phase enables participants to shift perspective by viewing the collaboration opportunity or challenge addressed through the eyes of the future partners. Here, we usually implement site visits, similar to “transect walks” in participatory action research The “unlikely allies” visit each other or go on a “safari” together to explore the topic in the field. An example would be a tour through Berlin to visit and interview different actors of the social innovation scene. The visits are enriched with team building exercises and sessions on topics such as leadership or collaboration. After the safari, there is time to synthesize insights and to reflect upon assumptions collected in the Download phase: 

Were my assumptions confirmed? Are my own views challenged? Have I learned anything new about my partner or stakeholders? Are there overlaps in our mission and goals? 

In our experience, exploring topics outside of the usual working environment and away from desks creates a first feeling of trust, openness to listen, and, equally important, excitement.

Creating space to prototype and learn in the Develop phase // In the Develop phase, participants are enabled to build the foundation of their partnership by co-developing and prototyping solutions they want to create together (products, services, process innovations) in a design sprint. During the sprint, which usually lasts three to five days, the startup spirit is especially relevant and is enhanced through an open, inspiring space and supporting materials and methods. Again, a safe space is provided to create, prototype, learn, and iterate together, especially during the first days. Having all parties co-create the content of their partnership in a space that allows playing with ideas before shaping them to reality, allows the creation of understanding and trust. This creates the foundation for a sustainable, long-term partnership, as a common language is created in the process.

Supporting change agents in the Deliver phase //  In addition or as part of the Design Sprint one to two days are always dedicated to go into implementation, including business modeling, roadmapping, and to create clear commitments from all parties involved. Translating the spirit of the Design Spring into outcomes that are tangible and implementible is crucial to support the change agents in selling the partnership opportunity to their internal stakeholders. 


Success factors in implementing the process:

  • Download phase
    • “Homework” is essential to bring everybody on board quickly – we usually advise the future partners on how to prepare their self-presentations, which data and information is needed and how it should be processed. Otherwise, alignment and understanding between participants takes too long and creates frustration
    • When sharing assumptions, some hesitation to share own views that might be perceived as critical can arise, depending on the cultural context. Our recommendation is to take a playful approach (e.g. a role play)
  • Discover and Define phase:
    • A site visit or similar “rich” experience is key for the discovery phase and cannot be substituted – make sure to plan this step properly, brief contact persons within the organisation, let the participants develop interview guides and the like to make maximum use of this excursion
    • The safari is important as a team-building intervention for the working group, too, especially if participants don’t know each other well yet
  • Develop phase
    • Endorsement and formal opening speeches by upper management are helpful to put the participants into the right mindset – if leadership encourages openness and demonstrates this attitude, it gets easier for participants to engage in the process
    • It is crucial to involve managers and operational staff (and not just the communications team) during the design sprint, eg. by inviting them over for a pitch of the ideas to get a first feeling or direct feedback on the ideas during the process
  • Deliver phase
    • Use tools from start-up methodology such as the business model canvas, and have several peer pitches to prepare “change agents” for pitching the idea within their organization
    • Ongoing coaching and backstopping after the workshop is advised to keep up the momentum, see below


Additional challenges in implementation – joint decision making, conflict management and the like

When it comes to implementation, additional challenges surface that reach beyond the scope of our “start-up” metaphor. E.g., decisions in partnerships can’t be taken through hierarchy, it requires agreements on decision making processes, well designed formats for negotiation and the like. Conflicts are unavoidable side-effects of dynamic and innovative partnerships and need to be handled, results need to be jointly monitored and other challenges will always suface. Successful partnerships usually develop steering mechanisms (e.g. boards, committees, working groups) that provide social spaces for these joint negotiations, decision making and learning processes. Also, sufficient support resources (e.g. in the preparation of meetings, in controlling and monitoring) should be available to keep up the dynamic.  

As a result of our work towards this 5-step process we had many aha moments and learnings. But one of the main takeaways was the urgent need to look deeper into the implementation phase. Enabling the great innovations are created in these partnership settings to succeed is a topic that we are currently working on. So if you have any suggestions or would like to part of this effort do not hesitate to contact us.  We are always looking for partners and project ready to learn with us.