Monday, 16 December 2013

That’s the way love goes: what your relationship experiences can tell you about partnership management

By Ruth Goodman

I recently attended a lunchtime learning session, Stimulating Demand for Good Partnerships: Lessons from MK4D & Beyond run by my colleagues Kate Bingley and Alan Stanley. MK4D (Mobilising Knowledge for Development) is the name of the now completed DFID grant which much of the IDS Knowledge Services department were involved in. Within MK4D there was a lot of focus on partnership work and during the session we got to talking about partnership management. How do you do it well? Is there any guidance? And for those who had yet to manage any relationships with partners then shouldn’t we really have some training on the matter?

While training could be useful, perhaps the most obvious but overlooked resource for partnership management is our own relationship experiences. Listening to the anecdotes people gave about partnerships, the parallels with other sorts of relationships were more than apparent, such as the rose tinted glasses stage. You and Organisation Wonderful are in a new relationship. Everything is exciting, you have so much in common, you share the same world view, (‘I can’t believe you want to end world poverty too. We’re just so similar!’). And, if there are any murmurings that Organisation Wonderful is anything other than perfect you don’t really tune in. 

But alas, the honeymoon period can’t last forever. You find out that your partner’s skill set isn’t quite what you thought it was. They don’t know how to use the cooker/washing machine/Hoover etc and their culinary expertise doesn't quite match up to what was promised. And what about those tensions of power where both parties want to assert their authority and you find yourself doing a lot of work with very little credit? Or, worst case scenario, communication breaks down entirely. They seemed so perfect, you were so happy but something has changed. They ignore your emails and they don’t call when they say they will and then you find out they’ve gone off with a shiny new project and you are old news.

So, if you find yourself in the position of managing a partnership, what steps can you take to try and avoid these partnership pitfalls?
  • Find out about your potential partner before you get together. What are they like to work with? Try and get the lowdown from someone who has already been there.
  • Try not to rush into things. Exert caution and avoid committing too much right at the beginning of the relationship.
  •  Make your expectations clear before signing on the dotted line. If you aren’t happy with something your partner is doing then question whether you were crystal clear in setting out what you wanted. Be specific and don’t assume your partner will know exactly what you expect if you haven’t told them.
  • Setting out roles and responsibilities from the very beginning is crucial for avoiding confusion and disappointment as the partnership progresses and if it is a case of whose name will go first on a paper or whose institution will host a given event, if this is something that really matters to you, tell the partner what you want and get it straight as early as possible.
  • Be respectful, communicate and pick your battles wisely

Ruth Goodman is Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Officer at the Institute of Development Studies