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Working together - why is it important to work in partnership with others 05/10/2009

Sarah-Jayne Russell talks to the finalists of the London Excellence Making Partnerships Work Award to uncover the secrets of their success and ask why it is important to work in partnership with others.

Working together - why is it important to work in partnership with others

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  1. Successful partnerships
  2. Finding the right partner
  3. Making things work
  4. Communication
  5. Creating a team culture
  6. Sticking together

Successful partnerships

It is often said that two heads are better than one. A second person can bring new points of view, different approaches to problem-solving and skills that you may lack. Such partnerships are at the heart of successful businesses; without Thomas Spencer’s investment and manufacturing contacts, Michael Marks’ chain of stores would not be a British institution 125 years on. And without his friend Ben, it is very unlikely that medical-school failure Jerry would have started an internationally successful ice cream firm.

Partnerships like these help the individual partners to work beyond their own capabilities and create something more than the sum of their parts. And this concept doesn’t just apply to individuals but to businesses and organisations of every size and sector.

Paul Sloane, author and founder of Destination Innovation, explains why partnerships are increasingly important for success in both the private and public spheres: “Organisations simply can’t achieve everything they want to on their own any more, it’s just not possible. The rate of innovation is now so high and competition is so strong that it makes sense to focus only on those things that you do really well and bring in partners to help you achieve more.”

Finding the right partner

The most important question to ask before embarking on a partnership with others. Paul says: “You should be looking out for an organisation that has complimentary skills to your own. Things that reflect what you are trying to do and at the same time advance whatever you are trying to achieve.”

One such innovative business partnership was the coming together of electronics giant Philips with established coffee brand Douwe Egberts. Neither had any experience of the other’s products but together they created Senseo, a brand of specialised coffee machines for the home. Similarly, Nestlë and L’Oréal have joined forces to use their different areas of expertise, food and beauty to create a drinkable skin supplement.

Finding a partner, however, does not simply rest on its ability to provide the skills or expertise that you lack. Having similar values is also important.

Tricia Pick, head of resource development at London Probation’s Resource Development Unit, one of the finalists in this year’s London Excellence Making Partnerships Work Award, says: “It is important that organisations learn enough about each other to ensure that they can work together. Sometimes values can differ substantially between organisations that might on the surface be trying to do the same thing.

“In probation, if a court has ordered an offender to attend a course of treatment and they miss more than one appointment they could be taken back to court. The voluntary sector agency providing the service may have quite a different ethos and find it difficult to be part of a process that returns an offender to court.”

Having similar goals and understanding what a partner can offer you does not necessarily mean your organisations will be able to work together. Learning as much as you can about your proposed partner first is best for both parties.

At the beginning of any partnership it is fundamental that both parties are clear about the aims of the partnership. Rose Viggiani, CEO of London Excellence, says: “It is absolutely key that partners have an understanding of their common goals, how they add value to each other and how they can move forward together to deliver effectively and efficiently what needs to be done.”

This can be achieved in a number of ways. For London Probation’s Unpaid Work Department project, Community Payback, a standard operating procedural agreement was drawn up that was signed by the team, the Metropolitan police and each of the 32 London boroughs they were working with.

In other partnerships, setting specific targets for the duration of the project helps to clarify exactly what is expected of each partner.

Making things work

Once a partnership is formed the work must continue to ensure that it is performing optimally. Here are three key areas that every partnership must work on to ensure success:

Communication

Good communication is crucial. Poplar HARCA found that by inviting police officers and other partnering teams to work from its office, information sharing was much easier and sped up many important processes.

For the majority of partnerships this will not be possible. At the London Probation project, Community Payback,  success depends on local staff from all the partner organisations working well together. Andrew Hillas, formerly assistant chief officer for London Unpaid Work North, London Probation, explains: “Our placement managers are absolutely key to the ongoing success of this partnership. We need them to work across partnership boundaries, so we provide training to assist them in developing crucial ambassadorial, negotiating skills.”

Creating a team culture

Creating a culture of teamwork that extends throughout all the partners may seem difficult but it will help produce the best end Results. Tower 42, in the heart of London, won the 2007 London Excellence award for partnerships for the teamwork needed to run its estate of offices. At Tower 42 each of the services usually associated with an office building, such as security, engineering, cleaning and catering, are all provided by separate companies working together as a single team.

Peter Merrett, general manager at Tower 42, explains: “I have a management team of 15 people based in the heart of the building. We’re all employed by different people, but you would never know. Nobody is ever referred to as a contractor so we all feel part of the same team.”

Tower 42 has its own uniforms that the staff wear rather than their own company’s uniform which helps to create the sense of community. And, unlike in other environments where the contractors would have little to do with each other, at Tower 42 staff from different companies are cross-trained: “If the post room has a particularly busy week then we can pull someone out from a loading bay or security and they’ve all been fully trained,” says Peter.

Sticking together

Creating a good working culture across the partnership and understanding goals can help to eliminate problems before they even start, but when there are Challenges, such as the current recession, it is important to work together. Rose says: “Partners must pull together in times of crisis because the alternative is wasting huge amounts of time on the blame game instead of trying to resolve problems.”

At the Resource Development Unit for London Probation, Tricia Pick and her team work with agencies to secure funding for schemes to help those on probation. Targets are set by the organisations that have provided funding and it’s important that they are met. “When third-sector organisations we work with fail to meet targets, they can feel pretty vulnerable,” says Tricia. “So in these instances we look at how both parties can work together to ensure targets are met. Last year we seconded a staff member to one organisation. We try to be as flexible as we can.”

Lastly, Paul Sloane warns organisations not to become too competitive: “Jealously can occur between partners and this is terribly destructive. You should never envy your partner’s profits. If a partnership helps you both do better then it’s working well, even if one partner seems to profit more than the other.”

Sarah-Jayne Russell

Sarah-Jayne Russell

Sarah-Jayne Russell