Opinion: Partnerships and the power of relationships

By Dave Prescott 01 March 2017

Partnership is essential to global development, but the importance of the relationships involved can often be overlooked. Photo by: Imagens Portal SESCSP / CC BY-NC-ND

Some magic quality emerges when people work in close sync with each other. We’ve all experienced the fellow feeling of being in a choir or band, a sports team or a friendship. It’s hard to explain what exactly this feeling is, or the importance of it: you have to experience it directly.

In the same way, a certain bond arises between the core people involved in any effective cross-sector partnership. This analysis of a South African water partnership refers to the central importance of the “chemistry” of partnerships. According to the partnership’s manager Nick Tandi, “We need to get better at understanding this chemistry, and how to make it work quicker and at scale.”

While few would doubt that something like “team spirit” or “harmony” is an essential function of well-functioning social groups, the chemistry at the core of partnerships is often overlooked, it’s rarely actively cultivated, and it’s certainly never budgeted for.

The question is, can the art of collaborative relationship-building be learned, or is it something that naturally emerges between the personalities involved? Can the partnership chemistry be methodically established, or does it just emerge?

In our experience, it seems as though a combination of luck and careful cultivation can be an essential ingredient here. While working in partnership comes naturally to some, a collaborative mindset can be consciously developed in other cases, and there are tools and methodologies that can be applied in order to fast track the required chemistry.

At issue is more than simply the ability to network, although relationship-building skills are crucial. It also includes the development of active listening skills and strong empathy, the ability to negotiate, awareness of power relations, a certain tolerance of uncertainty and risk, and an interest in learning quickly.

Such so-called soft skills are often the hardest to define and discuss (at least, without descending quickly into abstraction), and therefore the easiest to overlook. They are also the most urgent to deploy when things go wrong. If you don’t have a large well of trust to draw from at moments of crisis, partnerships can quickly unravel and people will revert to the safety of their organizational or disciplinary silos.

The Partnering Initiative is chairing a session on these “soft” issues at the forthcoming Global Partnerships Week, as part of a focused discussion on what makes for healthy, well-functioning partnerships. It will draw in part on TPI’s partnership healthcheck tool in our Better Together guidebook, a field-tested process designed to tease out some of the more evasive interpersonal issues that can make or break partnerships.

In the end the search for partnership chemistry may come down to a mixture of intuition and experience. And just as the best way to learn to write a novel is to sit down and write that novel, the best way to learn to cultivate partnership chemistry is to actually get stuck into a partnership. In the meantime, there is a great deal more that can be done to respond to Nick Tandi’s challenge to speed things along, not least by formally recognizing the central role that these invisible bonds play in effective collaboration.

Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

About the author

Dave Prescott

Dave Prescott is a senior advisor for the Partnering Initiative. Learn more about The Partnering Initiative on TPI's website (http://thepartneringinitiative.org/) and Twitter pages (https://twitter.com/TPI_tweets).

Join the Discussion