Getting started with partnering

starting-2The practice of working with organisations from different sectors is gaining momentum. Whether it be to make better use of resources, drive innovation or to solve tough intractable problems. But how we go about starting this process can have significant impacts on how sustainable the partnering will be and what it will deliver.

Getting the foundations in place early in the process is critical if you are going to be able to achieve results. Just like constructing a building, the foundations are crucial to long-term sustainability and performance of the partnering over its life cycle. Spending the time up front will be a solid investment and enable you to reap the returns over the longer term.

Partnering processes invariably start with one individual or organisation seeking to engage with other potential partners to explore a possible project or initiative. One thing we know about this initial engagement is that everyone coming together in an initial discussion will feel uncertain about what may happen, even if there are pre existing relationships between those present.

So the challenge is how do you go from this state of collective uncertainty to one where people from different organisations feel comfortable in sharing information, are open to exploratory discussions and willing to get engaged in the process. How do you create a safe space where people feel they can open up and share information so that trust between the potential partners starts to build?

While every partnering process is dependent on the context within which it is being created we believe there are some techniques that can be used to fast track the early stages and reduce the risk of the process coming to an abrupt end before it has even started.

Some of the approaches we have found to be successful include:

  • Doing your homework – meeting individually with each potential partner before they come to the first collective meeting to understand their level of interest, the strategic direction of their organisation and how this might align with the issue or potential initiative to be discussed
  • Consider where to meet – ideally meeting in a neutral space for the first time can have significant advantages in establishing a more equitable relationship from the beginning. If this is not possible then having the discussion up front and seeking alternative venues is important in setting the right tone between the potential partners
  • Create a safe space – creating an environment where people feel comfortable will encourage greater engagement and openness. This involves considering not only the physical location and logistics around the meeting but how people are introduced, how the Chair of the meeting shows respect to the other representatives present and most importantly that the context and background for the meeting is explained clearly with plenty of opportunities for questioning and clarifying
  • Focus on sharing information – sharing information about each other builds awareness and understanding of each of the partners. This also opens the door to understanding each others expectations from the partnering and possible barriers standing in the way
  • Get everyone to the starting line – everyone coming to a partnering table will come with different information and understanding as well as experience in partnering with others. Ensuring that all get to the same place – the starting line – with a common knowledge around not only the content for the topic being explored but an understanding of the partnering process is essential before you try and move on
  • Consider an independent partnership broker – having an independent third party or ‘honest broker’ to chair and design an engagement process between the potential partners can speed the process and reduce risks, particularly when the issue is complex or involves multiple parties.
  • Focus on building relationships – think carefully about who needs to be involved in the early discussions and how people will relate to each other. Are there existing relationships? If not what level of relationship building may be required before you start discussing issues?

These are just a few areas that you could consider in the early stages and there will likely be others depending on the situation you are working in.

So if you are looking to bring together two or more potential partners to explore a project, initiative or tackle a tough challenge, focusing on ‘how’ you will go about it, will ensure the best outcome and a solid foundation for working together into the future.

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