Building Partnerships That Work
by Amy Fong
Technology is all around us. For some of us, it’s our job to keep the bits moving, 3D printers printing, virtual server farms happily humming in triple redundant, super secure, public-private-hybrid cloud of your (or your local governing school board’s) choice. It’s an exciting time to be technology. Technology is the fun part. Maybe it’s even the easy part. Cisco’s Chief Futurist, Dave Evans, in 2013 inspiringly blogged about the intersection of technology and humanity[i]. Take away the technology, and what do you have left? Clients, peers, staff, management and other stakeholders. Before technology, and after technology, there are people. There are people with needs, and there are people who can help you do great things.
A few years ago, retired Starbuck’s President Howard Behar keynoted a session for CETPA. He spoke about his book, It’s Not About the Coffee, and his servant leadership philosophy, framing it as being in the people business serving coffee, not the other way around. His work was in the people business, and his book elaborated on ten principles that make it evident that his success was built on soft skills and how he interacted with people. Those people interacted with other people and so on, resulting in formidable products and market share.
Even if your game plan doesn’t include world domination via coffee products, it probably does include implementing great services that those clients, peers, and stakeholders will appreciate and it should definitely include a decent look at your plan for the people who will help make those visions a reality. People and organizations interacting and forming partnerships can do great things.
Partnerships Within an Organization
In the education arena, not much gets done in a vacuum, and modern organizations focus on collaboration. Today, instead of a “build it and they will come” mentality, it’s about bringing people around to the campfire and figuring out how it can be done. A great example of cross-functional partnering is agile software development, where twelve principles[ii] help focus the team on clients, outcomes and on what works. In 2001 The Agile Manifesto was written to express a new strategy for the digital age:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.[iii]
At CSIS, it was quite a shift to move from the waterfall software development methodology to something as wild west as agile with frightening visions of development teams run amok, of thin documentation and work breakdown structure plans left by the wayside. Change is hard, but in the end, agile created opportunities for public and private individual interactions. Publicly, individuals share their contributions to the project. During the 15-minute daily scrum, team members speak to what they accomplished yesterday, what they were planning to do today, and raise issues that need to be resolved. Bright and early each morning, individuals demonstrate their value to the team in this open forum. During the sprint retrospective, individuals identify things that went well, and create a to-do list of things that need to change for the next iteration. They hold each other accountable to do better next time. These interactions provide the kind of honest transparency needed in successful partnerships. Privately, business analysts, developers and testers have developed flexible, open, social communication models [iv] that keep information flowing, issues identified and solutions vetted outside the larger public meetings. As individuals in a small organization, moving around in the building, whether getting coffee or a snack in the kitchen or riding the elevator together, provides additional information sharing opportunities that prove to be quite useful because they are ad hoc, innocuous and informal. Often, it is conversations that aren’t specifically about the business at hand that reveal individuals’ personalities and strengthen partnerships at the individual level.
Partnering with External Organizations
Flexing lines of communication and ad hoc chances at collaboration are admittedly more difficult when partnering with external organizations. Because proximity and access can be an issue, finding and responding to opportunities to build relationships is even more important. Every opportunity should be viewed as coming to the campfire to strengthen the partnership. Seek to utilize a variety of channels to communicate – digitally, over the phone, in person, publicly, privately, formally, informally – but remember that the comfort level between the parties is one that grows mutually and with time. It is like any other relationship; it requires care and feeding, and, if the members of the partnership are very different in how they operate, a good amount of patience as well.
A terribly mundane, unglamorous communication and collaboration opportunity common to all partnerships and trying the patience of many is “the meeting”. All partnerships have them – status meetings, planning meetings, perhaps even meetings about meetings. Frequently, they are squandered opportunities for a variety of reasons. Meetings kill productivity[v]. A decade ago, Microsoft drew upon 38,000 people in 200 countries to find that on average workers have only three productive work days a week[vi]. Shockingly, other researchers have found that “no amount of money can buy a 25-hour day”[vii]. Think about how much time is spent in a meeting, how many people are involved, how much it is costing each organization. From a dollars and cents perspective, the costs can be staggering, and there are calculators to prove it[viii].
There are, of course, pragmatic ways to improve the quality of meetings[ix], but the most strategic way is one where the outcome strengthens the partnership. To know what strengthens the partnership requires candor, mindful listening and paying attention to verbal and non-verbal communication. What problems need to be solved? When is the other party just venting? Do they really want this new technology implemented or is this anxiety about change? Perhaps a dose of patience is needed. A cooling off period is better than escalation that leads to détente, impasses that stall plans and unravel partnerships. More often than not, technology itself is not the real issue. Soft skills and working through alternate channels to prevent escalation can help bring a measure of confidence, trust and transparency. Take a moment to assuage fears by identifying true risks and addressing real issues. Follow up with Implementation Plan B or Plan C or whatever plan gets systems online and in use; as technologists, that part is going to be our sweet spot. We need to get there together.
People + People = Great Things
Whether internal or external, partnerships thrive in an environment where each party engages in the work and contributes something meaningful and valued. While there is value to the partnership in commitment, accountability, and holding people’s feet to the fire, it is important to understand that no one’s going to want to step up to the campfire if their toes keep getting burnt off. No relationship is perfect. When things go sideways, what makes it better is the ability for partners to recap/learn, forgive and move on. As in the Agile Manifesto, it is important to foster sustainable relationships, to focus on people over process.
Process driven organizations often put effort into identifying key performance indicators and collecting metrics. Measuring interactions, collaboration and communication is a tricky thing. Partnering and building relationships is an organic activity. Examining interactions and measuring their effectiveness, identifying gaps, and aligning solutions is important work, but it is not the same as putting people first. For example, instead of strategies for using metrics and putting big data to work, Behar’s book covers the importance of having a culture where people bring out the best in themselves and their partners to achieve goals.
In the end, a key principle to remember when bringing people together is to engage and communicate like people. Be transparent; be accountable; build trust. Demonstrate value. Have patience. Focus on people. The core element of a great people business lies in building partnerships that work. We earn the relationships we deserve.[xi] Now, go do great things!