Strategic and affiliate partnerships are not new in business, but there are particular ways in which the challenges and opportunities of the current time make new demands on leaders. Increased knowledge and connectivity show us more of the complexity in the problems we want to solve, the goods and services we want to create, and in the relationships between producers and consumers, social activists and beneficiaries, including the blurring of those lines. However, they also show us how concerted collective creativity and actions can prove a match for that complexity. No one person, organization, or government will solve the global economic problems, just as no one agency or type of intervention will solve a social problem such as homelessness. For leaders this provides both a requirement and an opportunity, to enter the bigger picture and embrace the generosity of cooperation.
Perceiving new value
A decrease in the kinds of resources – capital and markets – that for-profit and non-profit organizations have become used to, leads to intensified competition. Partnerships have to demonstrate some higher order value – the activation of a social movement, increased learning, better service, new potentials, the opportunity to work on larger problems than a single organization could tackle alone. A leader has to perceive and understand that value, and then persuade others, internal and external, to pursue it, even at the expense of the old norms of competition.
Innovating chains and networks
Globalization will not stop, despite recession and consequent tendencies towards protectionism. In an inter-connected world, where current trends suggest that the ethical provenance of goods and services will increase in importance, partnerships can be a way of ensuring that provenance, as well as innovating along supply and distribution chains, and throughout networks. Through partners we can have knowledge of each stage of the chain, or node in the network. That knowledge creates a collective responsibility, and also the opportunity for collective creativity.
Partnering requires absolute clarity about an organization’s own area of work and sphere of influence. In many ways this becomes easier in times of straitened circumstances as organizations scale back to core business, and partnerships become a way of extending services. The difficulty then is to continue to innovate, in order to cultivate and develop the core business, in such a way that viable partnerships aren’t threatened. Pursuing joint ventures is one way to do this, although it adds complexity, especially in calculating the contribution of intangible assets. It also catalyzes the issues of power and control.
Power and Control
Probably the hardest part of collaboration for organizations is working out the respective areas and levels of control, and the decision-making processes to be used. As a baseline, good practices around this require that leaders of each organization come together with a genuine desire to share control and responsibility, to shift into being a part of a larger whole, rather than remaining the whole of a smaller part. It requires the ability to hold uncertainties in a spirit of curiosity and optimism, to stay loyal to earlier agreements about decision-making without being uncritical, and to act swiftly once decisions have been taken.
In the work of social innovation the problems tackled are complex and imbued with tensions. They are embedded in various systems, and within and between those systems, subject to competing agendas; they require innovation yet inhibit experiment; they demonstrate compelling overt symptoms and causes, and hold quieter, more covert, but equally influential ones as well. Scalable solutions require the concerted actions of policy-makers, leaders, program managers, field workers and venture funds, as well as the skills of top-sight, insight, foresight and know-how.
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