Interview: Why bother with partnership brokers and partnering tools?

Given the nature and depth of the global challenges we face you probably do not have to convince anyone anymore that we need (multi-stakeholder) partnerships to realize sustainable solutions to complex development issues at scale. But reaching across boundaries and engaging in a partnership with organisations that are not part of your usual crowd can be a big challenge and many partnerships do not survive or thrive. Two Partnership Brokers, Bas Gadiot (Crosswise works) & Herman Brouwer (Wageningen University & Research-CDI) give their view on what partnerships could pay more attention to, how partnership brokers can help highlighting the blind spots and what the benefit of reflecting with a tool like PPPLab’s Partnering Process tool can be.

 Are you fit for partnering?

There are many reasons to partner with other organisations and it is often not hard to find potential partners who would be interested to partner with you. However, is a partnership needed to reach the goals you have in mind? And is your own organisation fit for partnering? And who should you actually partner with? It is at this already initial point or phase that both Bas and Herman would tell you to take time and to think things through. According to them primary partnership work should happen internally in the own organisation. This should include a conversation on whether the potential partnership fits with the own strategy, whether you are organised to be a good partner and what you would consider good collaboration. Only after this analysis it is time to look outside, are they fit for partnering (with you)? A business is used to doing this as part of their due diligence. To help you with this analysis, Wilma Roozenboom, another Partnership Broker, has in her book developed questions around four areas to check the “fitness” on, those are; issue fit, strategic fit, cultural fit, and personal fit. She however stresses that a low score on one or more points on the list doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t partner, it just means that you should pay more attention to those aspects to avoid unnecessary conflict and confusions. Herman mentioned that in the last years, he has increasingly advised organisations not to partner. In these cases there was no clarity on the reasons to partner, and what the added value of a partnership would be. Therefore, if you and the potential partners have initially spent time on whether you are both fit to partner, it is more likely that you will have had conversations with the others about how to collaborate, and how to design that process. The unified advice from the partnership brokers is that it is far better to give time and thought on the front- end, than to try to fix things later on.

When “ends” meet “means”

In addition to checking partnering fitness it is wise, in the pre-phase, to pay attention to and assess if the partnership collaboration works in practice. For the PPPs applying for Dutch subsidies (FDOV & FDW), there is a significant pressure to upfront conform to the partnership requirements set by Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For these subsidy programmes, partnership professionals formulate the goals related to output, outcome and impact and thereafter partnership performance is measured against those goals. A problem with this is that in the first year(s) many partnerships will not perform well on “ends” metrics such as financial or impact performance.The reason is thatin large PPPs there are often at this point in time very few results to be shown since the first year is mainly about partnership building and kick-starting the project. Bas therefore suggests expanding the “ends” metrics with a “means” metrics. In this way you assess the factors that affect the partnership’s performance including things such as information sharing, new-idea development or the amount of issues that are signalled to project leaders. A good source for developing the means metrics is the article ‘Simple Rules for Making Alliances Works’ by Jonathan Hughes and Jess Weis. Another suggestion to increase the likelihood that the partnership will work in practice, is before applying to a call, explore the possibility if you could run a pilot project together with the potential partners (for example based on lean start-up methodology). Then you will have more ideas about how you collaborate and perform together.

Don’t forget learning

Herman’s experience is that when partnerships are under pressure to deliver results they also tend to underestimate the importance of learning. He notices that when partners are busy in a difficult context and struggle to keep up with planning, the first thing to suffer is the learning agenda. However, the struggles encountered are often likely to be linked to capacity gaps. When people assume that learning is something extra, they tend to search for a short cut. For example, to ask a consultant to do a study rather than sitting together as partners to reflect on what is happening, the implications of what is happening, and link this back to how the partnership itself is functioning. Herman explains that there is never a guarantee that better partnering and learning processes will deliver better results, but in review done on failed partnerships, most people involved agree that the lack of learning and limited focus on the partnering process were main contributing factors. Therefore, when assessing the partnership’s performance don’t forget the aspect of learning – you can’t outsource this.

 Brokering – when being uncomfortable can be a good thing

It is not easy to collaborate, and working on partnership processes can, according to Herman and Bas, be a very delicate process. They see that when the own performance of partners is under review in combination with high pressure on reaching results , people have the tendency to starting blaming others and conflicts may arise. Partnership brokers are not scared of these kinds of conflicts. Herman explains that helping a partnership which is stuck can be very rewarding and interesting work. But he also mentions that you have to acknowledge that you as a broker cannot always create successes for the clients. Sometimes, if a partnership is beyond its so called life cycle, nothing you do in terms of brokering and extra resources. The reason is then that the partnership proposition itself is not functioning. Bas, who has a background in conflict management and transformation, often sees a conflict in a partnership as an opportunity. For him, the added value of partnership brokering is helping people to see the blind spots and what it is they really wish for. He thinks it is natural that everyone has blind spots, and it has to do with behavioural patterns, culture, and assumptions about the work and the other. It is then valuable to recognize that if we can’t see the blind spots ourselves our partners can help us to see. To do so, a Partnership Broker creates the space where questions can be asked, learning takes place and process is facilitated so partners can reach their goals. This space can be uncomfortable but also very rewarding when it leads to collaborative impact.

 The benefits & pitfalls of using a partnering tool

Tools, as the PPPLab Partnering Process Tool, are there to support reflection and analysis of the different aspects of partnering processes as mentioned in this article. It can also be a fun way to create awareness and learn about- and from each other in the partnership. Bas and Herman together facilitated a session in Mozambique with The Netherlands embassy staff working in partnerships, and tried the PPPLab partnering tool with them. They are both positive about having a free tool which can be used to accelerate the conversation. Only by going through the questions of the tool, Herman thinks that many starts reflecting on their role and practice in the partnership, and the tool gives you a nice visual picture that you can discuss. But more practically, in terms of using a tool, is that you need to know what to do when, and with whom, that includes knowing which tools to use for what purpose. Bas still thinks the Partnering Process Tool needs more guidance in how to interpret the answers to improve the user friendliness. Because he thinks the conversation should go beyond: are we good or bad at partnering? A final remark from the partnership brokers is that what is more important than using various tools is simply good, open communication and empathy.

 Want to use the PPPLab Partnering Process tool for your partnership?

If you want to use the tool in your partnership for reflection and discussion and give feedback for us to improve the final design, email us and we will send you the login details and further instructions. Feedback is highly welcome!

Bas Gadiot & Herman Brouwer are both accredited Partnership Brokers working with different stakeholders in facilitating the partnering process and design. Want to know more about Partnership Brokering, have a look at the Partnership Broker Association website.