We can do more together than alone.
It’s true, but hard enough when individuals want to work together. Those challenges multiply when organizations with different motivations want to collaborate. Even actions like identifying goals and determining how to share resources can be complex.
Organizations may agree that a partnership will lead to good outcomes and stronger relationships, but they also may be overwhelmed and uncertain about how to get there.
Rarely is there a one-size-fits-all approach to facilitating these partnerships. Yet there are two valuable elements to keep in mind when gathering people with different perspectives who want achieve a common vision: stability and communication.
Create a system of stability
It doesn’t sound sexy at all, but stability has the power to ensure that completed collaborative work doesn’t get undone.
It starts by building trust among group members. Trust is supported by guidelines of conduct (e.g. be respectful, show up on time, listen carefully, and participate) and guidelines for meetings and communications (e.g. limit discussion via email thread, keep to an agenda during face to face meetings, promptly distribute supporting materials).
Dale Carnegie once said that “people support the world they help create.” You want members to add their voices and share their expertise; it’s why they’re a partner. Building trust gives diverse members of a group ownership to keep specific details, items, and issues moving forward.
Stability also highlights the expertise of group members. It provides opportunities for multiple voices to be heard during meetings and supports a group when responsibilities and resources are shared.
A system of stability is built when a group defines the processes and structures for intra-organization and governance. Especially important is how the group decides to resolve differences. This task can become more difficult as the number of members exceed 6 to 8 organizations. At this size, a hierarchical governance structure and an outside firm (like Reach Partners) may be needed to keep the group and its mission stable.
Financial stability becomes important when resources are needed to advance a cause or policy, or required to create an object, event, or process. In these cases, partnerships can help to maximize resources including funds, expertise, and influence. Long-term financial planning is one challenge of nearly all partnerships. For these reason, groups typically look for short-term solutions, for instance leveraging funding sources like grants.
Communication. Communication. Communication.
Communication supports the momentum of the group and creates a case for collaboration.
What is the purpose of the partnership? What are the proposed outcomes? How does each member organization and participant’s actions move toward that purpose? How does that group’s participation move their own business needs? Questions such as these inform communications, align partners, and help to focus internal and external communication.
Communication techniques, such as storytelling, can bring the group back again to the narrative and goals that hold the group together. Taking time to highlight stakeholders’ motivations (a nonprofit’s mission, a business’s goals, an agency’s role) and the benefits they receive by participating can help to keep the group on task.
An experienced facilitator can understand how to navigate the differences between organizations while carefully pointing out the risks of pursuing the goal alone. An experienced facilitator will encourage collaboration, giving organizations both small and large an opportunity to contribute and share their expertise.
Yes, we can do better together than alone. It takes patience; it takes flexibility. In the end, it is well worth the effort.
Examples of how Reach Partners has facilitated partnerships:
Every great project and event starts with great strategy.
This is why we carefully guide our clients to identify their intent: What do they want to accomplish? How will success be defined? Once goals are determined, we identify constraints, such as time, financial resources, human resources. We think through possible risks and barriers.
We expect that good strategy will save time, money and mental energy. And, of course, everything will proceed smoothly.
Except sometimes it doesn’t.
Surprisingly, one of the biggest threats to a successful project isn’t poor strategy or poor planning: it’s the seemingly harmless fuzzy bunny.
Fuzzy bunnies are well-meaning distractions that keep you from focusing on what needs to be addressed.
Speaking of fuzzy bunnies, when I hear the phrase I picture a small rabbit that my dad found in a field nest and brought to our house one Easter. My cousin Maggie, at age 3 or 4, was visiting. She wore a red print dress with a white overlay and she carefully cuddled that little bunny in her tiny hands. So cute. So adorable.
And so off on a tangent.
The point is that fuzzy bunnies are cute and good and cuddly. The latest, new idea is pretty darn cute, too (or at least some individual or group you are working with will think so). That is a problem when the great idea derails a project or doesn’t align with the strategy.
Fuzzy bunnies come from anywhere. Sometimes it’s the visionary folks who thrive on the big picture who can’t help themselves. They enjoy coming up with lots and lots of ideas and they’re pretty good at it, too. Sometimes it’s the more detail-oriented members of a group who fixate on ideas that won’t actually move the project forward.
We’ve worked with clients who wanted to spend precious meeting time discussing menu items that were too expensive for the budget. We’ve guided teams who kept contributing “great ideas” for programs well beyond the time they could be implemented.
Yes, when managing a project you need to be flexible and nimble. But there’s a difference between changing plans because there isn’t a staff member available and changing plans because a new idea popped up.
Bad ideas, of course, are easy to dismiss. But the good ones?
That’s when we turn to the strategy document. If good strategy work has been done, it is relatively easy to determine whether an idea should be explored or set aside.
A strategy document can be simple or complex, but it can’t be placed on a shelf. Its true value appears when it is kept close at hand throughout the entire project. It can be used to review all new ideas, all new solutions to determine whether the idea is helpful or a fuzzy bunny.
Should you entertain the idea of serving lobster on the lunch buffet? Check the budget in your strategy document. Should you rent a billboard because it’s a good deal? Review your strategy document.
It’s powerful and rewarding to see real and tangible experiences rise up from strong strategy. Even more so, it’s exciting to see strategy used to combat the fuzzy bunnies that rear their crazy heads in midst of shaping a project or event.
Let’s keep the fuzzy bunnies where they belong.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Blog adapted from 12/2/14 post.