• Simon Phillips


What is Partnership?

The term “partnership” is commonly used. In The Change Maker Group’s series of articles looking at some of the implications and practical responses to the substantial political, economic and potentially social change in the UK, I thought I would consider how people and their organisations work together.

It is common for people and organisations to talk about ‘working in partnership’ with one another or with their customers. The partnership tag applies to church groups, schools, or housing associations as much as it does to local government organisations sharing services or companies working together through outsourcing contracts. Some of the major supranational bodies such as the EU, NATO and the United Nations are implicitly partnerships, although with a huge political element.

The common theme though is that the ‘partnership’ relationship implies the cooperation between the parties for mutual benefit, whether individuals or organisations. It can be expressed as 1+1>2 where there are additional tangible and intangible benefits of high-quality partnership style relationships.

There are a number of factors that indicate the quality of an intended (or unintended) partnership. Here are the main ones in my view.

  • Competition and equality – is your relationship one where there is competition between participants, without equality in the relationship? If there is competition, perhaps even based on a written contract, then there is unlikely to be partnership behaviours as there won’t be any mutual benefit. Competition for value makes any relationship more difficult, increasing conflict, risks and costs. It also tends to add energy-sapping layers of additional governance and control activities.

  • Convergent objectives and aspirations – where there is a single/joint set of objectives, targets and aspirations where all parties gain the desired benefits then there is a partnership. The opposite extreme is a continual jostling for position with aggression and conflict.

  • Problem-solving – do you solve problems together, or do you apportion blame? Partners would fix problems collaboratively rather than spend time and energy on retrenching and attributing blame to the ‘other side’. Similarly successes and failures are equally shared and recognized.

  • People and relationships – the quality of peoples’ relationships as far as they relate to the subject of the partnership is paramount. Where relationships are weak, it is unlikely that you would achieve the additional benefits implied by a partnership, whilst where they are strong implicitly everyone is working for the common goals and benefits.

  • Outward focus – an internalized focus implies that there is a focus on ‘us’ and ‘them’ – an outward-looking stance suggests a ‘we’ focus.

  • Open communications – can you communicate openly, or do you have to couch any communications in terms of an underlying ‘contract’ or political position?

  • Mutual understanding – in working together if the parties understand each other’s position, issues, strategic and cultural drivers there is more chance of an advantageous relationship as behaviours and positioning can be adjusted to reflect the partners’ challenges outside of the relationship.

Working towards a partnership style will reduce adversarial thinking and behaviours, moving to a collaborative and mutually-beneficial style. It should ‘feel’ better – people will not be focussed on anything other than ‘getting the job done’ to the best of their ability, and hopefully building friendships and having fun along the way. The contract may be available, but it is safely filed in the bottom drawer and the key has been thrown away. I have said so many times before that organisations are inanimate, and it is the people within them that get things done. As a consequence, cultures need to principally reflect the behavioural aspects as much as the regulatory, strategic, technical and environmental factors.

The Ingredients for Partnership

A partnership in whatever guise will not just happen, and the quality factors outlined above will not be effectively established without work. Partnerships are likely to be successful where there is, inter alia;

  • Trust

  • Mutual respect

  • Openness

  • Vision and strategy

  • Great communications

  • Teamworking

  • Supporting frameworks

  • Sponsorship

These facets are not necessarily easy to define or put in place.

How to start the partnership journey…

If we want to build the kind of collaborative relationships that are likely to be appropriate for success we need to start by determining what will help us achieve our goals, and then commence working towards that. In practical terms this can be launched (or improved) through a ‘partnership workshop’ where you consider;

  • what is the current state of the relationship?

  • what does everyone want/need to get out of the relationship?

  • what the parties have in common, and what differentiates them?

  • where does the whole joint team want to be – our ‘vision’?

  • what are the principal relationships necessary between team members, and how strong do they need to be?

  • what are the acid tests/key performance indicators to indicate the success of the partnership?

  • what is the plan of action?

This agenda should be flexed depending on the status of a partnership, but provides a guide how to kick-start a partnership-building process.

David Walker is a Programme Manager for major organisational changes and developments and key Change Maker.



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