The Evolution of Partnership

The term “partnership” is often bandied about in business and while courteous and well-intentioned can be ambiguous and misleading. Aside from legal partnerships, the sort I refer to is client – supplier partnerships. The continuum of such relationships has been well documented by academics from the most basic, transactionally-based to the trusted can’t-do-without-you synergistic sort. While the use of the term is usually to express polite mutual respect, the balance of power is usually unequal and when the chips are down, the leverage is used by one or the other party when it suits them.

The balance shifts though, and this is when it can get interesting and the lived values of an organisation and its culture comes to the fore.

If we accept that the exclusivity and patriarchy of the Old Boys Club is past its sell by date, and that conducting the procurement of more complex services by e-auction, the other extreme, is potentially problematic and limiting, where does that leave us? There’s good evidence that authentic partnership, where the value that each organisation brings is clear, there’s meaningful mutual business benefit (not always tethered to a list of contractual KPI’s but rather evolved as the needs of the client and the landscape evolves) is perhaps the last competitive advantage.

Strategic partnerships can be vital for organisations looking to create or access capabilities they need to keep up with a transforming business environment and the new opportunities it presents. Getting these partnerships right, however, requires deliberate efforts involving trust, inclusive strategic decisions and importantly culture-fit.

It must be possible to learn from experience on an iterative basis, to exercise flexibility and to discover new ways of working together which maximises the chance of success – for both parties and not just one side. Productive synergy, joint ownership and shared interests must prevail, as must balancing efficiency and sustainability.

Strong relationships, of any sort, take time. Open, no-holds-barred honesty and a willingness from both sides to be tuned in, listen, adapt and embrace change and improvement are hallmarks. Leadership changes can complicate this with the mortar of trust having been built over time, potentially eroded overnight. At the end of the long day, it comes down to people that care, the experience they have and attendant value they bring sealed with the mutual trust we have in one another that we will do the very best we can, even if against the odds, for our partners. Challenges like the seismic shifts we have seen in the last eight weeks in the trading landscape can reveal deep cracks where the foundations of partnerships are not strong. Or alternatively where they are, and sense and ultimately success prevails. Despite the contractual KPI’s or contract price.

No man is an island and nor is any business.