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November 2012


“P” Is for Partnership

A well-known poem by Robert Frost, “Mending Walls,” contains the famous line “Good fences make good neighbors.” This is also how a 2011 blog post on productive partnerships begins. The blogger pointed out that, while fences might support neighbors’ relationships, they don’t serve partnerships well at all. I have been interested recently in specifically what makes for good partnerships for two very important reasons: (1) Strategic partnerships and alliances are growing in importance and numbers as industries consolidate, research dollars shrink, and global opportunities open up; and (2) As the Baldrige Program looks to the next 25 years, I believe strategic partnerships will be critical to our growth and outreach. Indeed, the emerging Baldrige Enterprise is an important partnership we are building right now.

In the 2013–2014 Criteria for Performance Excellence (available mid-December 2012), the term partners appears on 24 out of 60 pages. The Baldrige Criteria define partners as “key organizations or individuals who are working in concert with your organization to achieve a common goal or vision.”

I have learned that there is much more to successful partnering than this simple definition states. Some of those keys to success are embedded in the Baldrige Criteria’s many questions related to partners. Those questions about partners appear in the Organizational Profile; categories 1 (Leadership), 2 (Strategic Planning), 4 (Measurement, Analysis, and Knowledge Management); and the Baldrige Core Values and Concepts. Partners also contribute significantly to an organization’s success in relation to numerous category 7 items (Results).

Based on my readings and observations over time, I have divided the characteristics of partnership success into three levels: (1) the entry level, (2) the decision level, and (3) the operational level. All three levels are necessary for success and may be approached sequentially as the partnership is developed. A lack of compatibility between organizations in relation to any of the characteristics is cause for pause at a minimum and could be a signal not to proceed with a partnership if differences can’t be resolved. The further down the levels you go, the more likely it is that differences can be resolved, although they may require some effort. Conversely, the higher up you are on the list, the more carefully potential partners need to consider whether any differences that exist between them are reconcilable.

Here are three characteristics that I would place at the entry level for partnership determination:

  1. Cultural Compatibility. Do the partners have compatible core values? Are they driven by similar belief systems? Will their people be compatible, or will they mix like oil and water? Do they have an ethical basis for building a relationship? Will they be able to develop a sense of trust in each other?
  2. Driving Force. Do the partners have a driving force for working together? Is there a hunger on all sides that the partnership could fill? Is there a strategic basis for the partnership? Are there realizable and clear mutual and individual benefits for each of the partners? Can they be simply articulated? Is each party prepared to honestly state those dual benefits to the potential partner(s)?
  3. Mission and Vision Compatibility. Do the potential partners have aligned or complementary missions? Are their organizational visions compatible with the likely vision for the partnership? Are their visions for the partnership similar or reconcilable? Are there any conflicts of interest that exist for any of the partners? Can they be disclosed and mitigated?
Here are four additional characteristics that I would place at the decision level for partnership determination:

  1. Clear Expectations. Can you clearly state the intent of the partnership and set mutually agreeable goals? Will it be a win-win relationship? All parties must see benefit for a successful partnership to be achieved and for mutual trust to be increasingly built over time.
  2. Scope. Can you clearly articulate the scope and boundaries of the partnership relationship? Will there be no hidden agendas or suspicion of hidden agendas? Will there be no fences or barriers when it comes to sharing relevant technology and knowledge? Will each partner have clearly defined roles and responsibilities? Will this partnership build capacity for all partners?
  3. Synergy. Are there complementary organizational skills and core competencies? Are the anticipated results greater than the sum of the parts that each partner can contribute? Will the partnership lead to new products or market entry? Are all partners prepared to give and receive when it relates to responsibility and accountability?
  4. Risk and Reward. Will there be an open and defined sharing of risks and rewards? Does the partnership allow intelligent risk taking that none of the partners are capable or likely to take on their own? Are there economies of scale to be achieved? Does each party have the necessary resources, financial and otherwise, to commit to the partnership’s success, and will they commit them?
Assuming that the partners can successfully address the questions at the entry and decision levels, the likelihood of a successful relationship appears much greater. The final, or operational, level of compatibility is more procedural in nature and, therefore, achievable with work and goodwill, even if initial differences exist. Here are four characteristics at the operational level for partnership determination:

  1. Decision Making. How will partnership decisions be made? What independent decision-making authority will exist, and when will consensus be needed? What is the decision-making process? How will conflicts be handled? What will the partnership leadership structure be?
  2. Communication. How will communication among partners be handled? How will partners guarantee good, transparent, and complete information flow? How will conflicts be handled?
  3. Learning. How will the partnership and the partners learn from experience? How will they improve, evolve, and innovate processes, offerings, and relationships?
  4. Termination. Is there a process for partnership termination? What are the partners’ rights to terminate the relationship, if desired? Is there a defined review cycle for the partnership?
You may quibble with my placement of individual characteristics at the three levels, but I hope you will agree that this is a good list to consider in establishing and periodically reviewing partnerships. And I hope you can use this list in your partnership building, as I hope we will do as we continue building the Baldrige Enterprise.


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