Successful Strategic Alliances (and Marriages)

A while back in the Harvard Business Review, Rosabeth Moss Kanter posted: “Unlike full-blown mergers, in which two really do become one because one company disappears, alliances and partnerships resemble modern marriages: separate careers, individual checkbooks, sometimes different names, but the need to work out the operational overlap around household and offspring.”

art of strategic alliancesMoss Kanter lists 15 traits that optimal strategic alliances share with personal marriage —

1. Be open to romance, but court carefully. At the beginning of new relationships, selective perceptions reinforce dreams, not dangers. Potential partners see in the other what they want to see, believing what they want to believe. Hopes, dreams, and visions should be balanced by reality checks.

2. Know yourself. Build your strengths. An organization seeking partners should identify assets that have value to partners and strengthen them. Networks of the weak do not survive. The best alliances join strength to strength.

3. Seek compatibility in values. In rapidly changing environments, compatibility in values, philosophy and goals is more important than specific features of an immediate business deal. The basis for collaboration must be more enduring, and there must be a foundation for mutual trust to help weather inevitable changes or problems.

4. Treat the ‘extended family’ respectfully. Include other partners and stakeholders. Rapport between leaders of partner organizations is not enough. Other people and organizations who are the ‘relatives’ in each organizations’ extended family must also be won over.

5. Put the lawyers in their place. Leader-to-leader relationships are important. Partnerships and network formation shouldn’t be turned over to third-party professionals, such as staff analysts, lawyers, consultants, or deal-brokers.

6. Vow to work together until business conditions do us part. Commit to a first project, to exploring growth in the relationship, to monitor change, and to remain friends if changing conditions require a graceful exit.

7. But don’t count on the contract. Formal agreements can’t anticipate everything, and interpretations of the agreement vary — even within the same organization.

8. So keep communicating, face-to-face. Matters are more easily sorted out when partners’ leaders keep talking long after their initial deal-making and dedicate people to watch over the relationship — a partner or alliance ‘ambassador’ (the equivalent of key account managers).

9. Spread involvement. Create more ties for more people. Alliances begin with a few direct connections among top leaders. As projects unfold, more people at more levels must get involved, and they need to feel connected, too — that they know their counterparts in their partner organization. The more people feel included, the more they have a chance to see the others face-to-face and come to know them, the easier it will be to implement partnership activities.

10. Build organizational bridges — formal structures. Active collaboration occurs when organizations develop structures, processes, and skills for bridging organizational and interpersonal differences and getting value from the relationship. Bridges include formal governance (a partnership board), joint project teams, and alliance ambassadors.

11. Respect differences. Alliances, partnerships, and networks are most helpful when they involve differences — when partners give each other something they do not already have. But differences in “specialty” desired by partners are accompanied by more “inconvenient” differences in behavioral style, motives and goals, operating methods, or cultural assumptions. Respect is essential. Time must be invested in understanding differences and transcending them.

12. Teach partners. Learn from partners. People from across the partnership network must become teachers as well as learners. Often the ultimate value of a partnership is the new knowledge and skill it brings. Organizations that derive greater value from their alliances tend to have greater communication internally, share more information, and promote an atmosphere of learning.

13. Be prepared to change yourself. Partners must be willing to be influenced by one another. To make linkages possible requires operating compatibilities, project by project and sometimes even in a larger sense. This can mean learning the other’s language and style or inventing a new one; changing to the other’s system or creating a joint one.

14. Help everyone win. Mutuality is the hallmark of organizational collaboration. Balancing benefits so that each partner gets something of equivalent value can be hard to do in the short run, but it is essential in the long run. The best alliances try to maximize the value of the whole relationship, which then makes it more valuable to each partner.

15. Get closer, change course, or exit gracefully. Like living systems, relationships evolve. Change should be expected. But the best guarantee that organizations will be closer in the future is success in what they try to achieve today. Success strengthens relationships.

To ensure that your partnerships are effective, apply these principles at every stage of the relationship. Then toast the benefits of happy marriages!