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When partnership is not the right approach

Have you ever wondered if partnership is the right approach to be taking? If so, you’re certainly not alone! I’m here to tell you that, sometimes, making the decision not to partner is as important as making a decision to partner.

This doesn’t mean that the partnership idea should be scrapped altogether; it just means there is probably more work to do, more resources required, and more time to be taken in building a shared understanding of the rationale and what’s required to achieve shared goals.

Here are some of my thoughts on why jumping into a partnership might not be the best approach for you and your context as well as some strategies around how you can test these ideas in your work.

Your goals aren’t aligning

This can arise in a couple of different areas. First, potential partners haven’t been through a process of identifying what might be shared in their goals for a partnership. The sense of a shared goal has been assumed, and then conflict emerges because one or more partners aren’t meeting the expectations of the other. The other common experience sees partners investing in a process of identifying a broad goal that appears to be shared, but the partners don’t probe what’s driving these goals. This leaves partners in the tricky situation of more being assumed in the partnership than communicated.

The strategy? Engage with your partners early and often regarding what they’re hoping to get out of the partnership and why. Look for the alignment in your goals and work together to articulate where there might be gaps. If the gaps between your goals are too wide or are in conflict, now might not be the right time to partner.

One or more partners aren’t ready to commit

We hear it all the time – building and maintaining buy-in can take work. If you’ve discussed what each partner feels is required in terms of commitment and one or more potential partners are not able to provide that commitment, it’s reasonable to ask if partnership is the right approach for you to take. Signs you might want to revisit and question commitment and accountability to the partnership include a partner not being able to resource their input into a partnership, a lack of communication, or a lack of follow-through.

The strategy? Sometimes a perceived lack of commitment can be because one or more partners aren’t getting their interests met or they’re not being given the opportunity to contribute to a partnership’s direction in the way they’d most value. If you’ve engaged in a process to understand the interests and expectations of each partner, as well as how the partnership can match those interests and expectations (at least in part) and you’re still feeling as though you can’t get on the same page, it might be time to rethink the value-add of the partnership (at least for now).

Power incompatibility

If there are significant and irreconcilable power imbalances between potential partners, or one or more of the potential partners aren’t ready to see and reorient the power they bring, it might be difficult to build and maintain a partnership that is equitable.

The strategy? Power imbalances alone aren’t a reason not to partner; the path forward becomes less clear when partners can’t reach agreement on how power shows up and plays a role in partnership. Understanding the different forms of power partners bring, using tools like this one,  is a good place to start. Be aware that this can take some time and confidence to explore. Working at a pace that enables you to build trust is key (particularly in contexts where the people involved in the partnership have legacies of oppression and being disempowered). If one or more partners aren’t able to see the power they bring, or aren’t ready to reorient power, pressing pause on the partnership is perfectly reasonable.

Unresolved conflict

You know what’s hard to do? Building a relationship centred around trust and confidence when you’re sitting with unresolved tension around a potential partner. If there are existing conflicts between potential partners that have not been resolved, including where one or more partners is holding on to feelings of resentment towards the other, building and maintaining an effective partnership is going to be difficult and is unlikely the right approach unless those tensions can be aired and resolved. Unresolved conflicts can lead to breakdown in communication, resentment, mistrust, and difficulties in achieving shared goals.

The strategy? Ask yourself: if I’m not prepared to communicate my experience and invite my partner’s perspective on it, am I prepared to put my feelings aside to pursue a partnership? If the answer is “no”, or even “maybe”, it’s likely that these feelings will re-emerge the moment you encounter disagreement in the partnership. If the conflict has been left to fester, it may create more challenges than making the call not to partner in the first place.

It’s important to take your time in working through both the risks and benefits of a partnership approach before making the commitment. If any of these factors are present, try some of these strategies to address the things that might be sitting under the surface of the challenge. If you’re still at a loss, deciding not to proceed with a partnership could be the most appropriate call to make.

Don’t forget, we’re here to support you in navigating the ups and downs of building and maintaining effective partnerships. Contact me at Lottie.Turner@healthjustice.org.au and we can make a time to talk about how.

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