Collaboration and conflict: Time and again as a cross-sector partnership consultant, I get ‘called in’ by partnerships once things have ‘turned a bit sour’, usually after about a year and a half. The cause is also usually the same: Partners jumped into operational project activities too quickly, without tending to what we call ‘the basics’ of partnering first. And I am no exception – I came to partnering almost two decades ago by doing exactly that same thing: Doing it wrong.
As I just shared with prospective new clients again: In the Partnering Cycle (see image), our focus really needs to be on the initial phase of building. Once we have scoped our cause and done our due diligence on identifying appropriate partners, it is the building that often gets skipped over, because we jump straight ahead into planning, structuring and mobilizing. What are we building? A ’good enough‘ relationship of mutuality/reciprocity and trust.
To keep this post readably short, find here five quick tips. For the purpose of properly building a cross-sector partnership, you need to tend to exactly five aspects:
- Build familiarity and trust early on – spend time together, also informally, get to know each other
- Openly clarify your mutual underlying values – is there a match? When conflict arises, it is usually the ‘tip of the iceberg’ – what’s underneath that is usually a values clash.
- As transparently as possible: Clarify your underlying assumptions about each other, both as individuals and as representatives of your institutions (and feel free to also dive into addressing sectoral stereotypes regarding the latter, because those are usually quite accurate …)
- Explicitly engage in ‘soft contracting’: How do you want to work together? How should somebody looking in from the outside describe the quality of your collaboration? You may even want to put that down in writing – with everybody involved personally signing.
- For the purpose of good contracting, one question to be asked as well is: What does each party have to give up (e.g. interests, positions, attitudes) to collaborate well? Because good partnering – just like in any relationship – takes compromise. You don’t get your own way all of the time. In fact, only at best about 25% of the time. 25% of the time another party gets what they want, and for the 50% in between you all compromise.
Skip tending to any of those five aspects, and I promise you from experience: You will be in for trouble – at the latest after about a year and a half.
Why is that?
Wilber’s Integral Model of Change gives us an answer at one glance:
Cross-sector collaboration is an interaction of ideologies, value sets, visions, missions and expectations that can become quite complex. And that gets augmented by one additional fact: You deal both with individuals and with the organizations they represent.
You may have experienced this: You get along really well with a representative – but they are quite apologetic about the constraints within their organization, e.g. a state ministry. Or you have the official commitment of an organization, but the individual representative assigned has her/his very own agenda …
For effective partnering, you need both individual and organizational engagement – in the left two of Wilber’s four quadrants, on the ‘interior’/‘consciousness’ side. Attitudes matter!
Processes and management systems matter, too, and you can get to those when you get into planning and structuring. But ignore attitudes, values and assumptions at your peril …!
If you’ve already progressed quite far in your partnering cycle, but have kind of skipped over a proper relational ‘building’ phase, do go back and catch up. Take time out for this – anywhere between half a day and two days. That way, you may not need to call my colleagues and me in despair – although, of course, we’re always happy to support!