Working in partnerships – 7 important conversation topics

It can be exciting when you have an opportunity to work in partnership with another person, department or organisation and you’ll be keen to move forward. But, how do you make sure this partnership works ….and lasts?

A Partnership is defined as “an ongoing relationship where the risks and benefits are shared” and we know that they can enable people to achieve things that they couldn’t do alone.Partnership Jigsaw


If you need to:

  • access more resources
  • co-create products
  • package combined services
  • solve cross functional or cross sector problems
  • have greater reach or impact
  • acquire greater legitimacy or acceptance
  • grow your reputation

?you may consider a partnership as the best way forward.

As the African proverb says –

If you want to go fast, go alone.
If you want to go far, go together.

Whilst this holds true in many cases, business partnerships have a worse track record than marriages in terms of sustainability! Partnerships face particular challenges: understanding these at the outset can help you build resilience for your own partnership working.

Essentially, we are tribal animals!


As such, we are ‘hard wired’ to feel a sense of loyalty and kinship to our own group and suspicion and competitiveness to other groups. This instinctive stance has to be understood and worked with in partnerships. Partners might feel competitive and there might be levels of mistrust and uncertainty, sometimes fuelled by stereotyped images of each other. At times there can be a power imbalance or hidden agendas that can create feelings of vulnerability and suspicion.

Another of the challenges when working in partnership is that traditional management skills don’t always work. In partnerships you’re not a team, nor do you have the clarity of a transactional customer-supplier relationship; your relationship lies somewhere between these two models.

So, what’s the key ingredient needed to build a strong partnership? You can probably have an instinctive guess at the answer! It’s:


Given that we usually build trust over time, how can you instil this from the outset, when you haven’t had the benefit of time?

In my experience of facilitating partnership formations, if you want to build the essential trust between new partners, there is no realistic alternative to putting the time and effort in to face to face meetings. You can use these meetings to address seven important topics areas:

1. Build rapport between individuals

– allow people to make personal connections and explore personal, social and interest connections as a formal exercise at the beginning of the relationship and allow times for people to follow this up.

2. Identify and clarify your common goal

– don’t assume that everyone wants the same thing and take time to agree the exact wording/description of the goal; ironing out nuances now will save you frustration later. Paradoxically, you must also be prepared to revisit this as your work together evolves. Perhaps, in light of what you learn, you’ll want to re-direct your focus.


This human chemistry of rapport, and the inspiration of the common goal, is what will glue your partnership together during the more challenging times.

3. Identify the resources you each bring

– both the obvious and less obvious. It can be easy to undervalue the specialist knowledge that smaller organisations bring to the party and acknowledging this can help build mutual respect. Sometimes, people can take their own knowledge and experience for granted so making this explicit between parties can open up possibilities for collaboration.

4. Explore each other’s interests

in making the partnership succeed and identify and strengthen common interests. Interests are what lie behind what you want as an organisation, e.g. your interest in ‘the sustainability of your business’ as opposed to the fact you want to increase your output to 1 million units this year. Being honest in this process is vital.


"You can’t always get what you want… but if you try some time, you just might find… you get what you need"

5. Be explicit about your expectations of each other

– It can be so easy to make assumptions about each other in any kind of relationship and it is so much easier to flush these out with good humour at the start of a partnership, than to deal with disappointed expectations further down the road.

6. Create a decision making process

– How will you come to agreement when decisions need to be made? Will you need consensus on all aspects of your working relationship? Who are the vital stakeholders that will need to be involved?


7. Create a review process to catch problems early

– Knowing that there is a forum to raise problems will reassure partners not to overreact to anxieties and will help share the responsibility of risk assessment.

I recently facilitated an inaugural meeting for a large, city council, housing department and nine independent housing associations who were coming together to agree whether or not they would continue to work in partnership to share a common housing list and a common approach to who should be allocated housing.

It was a fascinating process and my main strategy for the meeting was to rally people under the banner of common interests in serving the residents of the city. There were challenges for many of the participants, who represented national organisations and who had to consider wider interests, but I was impressed by the open-mindedness of partners as well as their willingness to acknowledge the challenges but to not be deterred by them. It got me wondering whether those who work for organisations that are addressing social issues might be more motivated to sustain partnerships because of common values.

What do you find are the main challenges to partnership working? How do you try and anticipate them at the outset? Do you think that public sector or not-for-profit organisations are better at working in partnerships? Please let me know what you think by leaving a comment in the box below.

Look out for next month's blog on Development Planning.

Posted by: Shona Ward

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