Partnerships That Bite

May 1, 2015

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Published in The Herald on 1st May 2015. Written by Jim Metcalfe, Head of practice and development, Carnegie UK

‘Partnering’, ‘teaming up with’ and ‘synergy’ are becoming ubiquitous terms on crowdfunding pledge pages, NGO websites, in corporate annual reports and government press releases. They are the stuff of ecosystems and hubs, accelerators and incubators.

Working together is of course a very good thing. As the pace of change quickens in a complex and noisy world, no organisation or sector will perform very effectively without finding ways to work with others. Partnership can doubtless amplify effort and quicken the pace of getting from A to B, whether the challenge is a business, social or cultural one. It’s a vital element of unlocking innovation, for whatever purpose and in whatever forum.

Many partnerships for change, though, are false flags. The rebadging of purchaser-contractor, state-agency, or donor-grantee relationships. Little more than redefinitions of existing structures rather than genuinely new ways of interacting.

Often these faux partnerships are really just delivery mechanisms for pre-determined solutions. Boss A decides that task X must be done to accomplish target Y, so ‘partners with’ Company B to do so: in reality, A is just paying B to do a job. That’s a perfectly necessary and virtuous thing. It’s just not a partnership.

Scientific and technological progress across the world reveals why true partnerships can work so well. Defining a problem, being problem-led, is a transformationally powerful way to work. Whether tackling dementia, planning smart cities, redesigning social care or building new kinds of energy storage systems, clever people have worked out that you can get cleverer still by having a big ambition but not being certain or dogmatic about how to accomplish it.

Stumbling along, testing and changing, pooling resources without hierarchy (yet sometimes competing with other partnerships) have proven efficient ways to achieve change in all of these fields, while the partners themselves grow in confidence and skill. An ‘expert’ professing to have all the answers changes little, as everyone else will withdraw their thought, time and treasure from the discussion. No false prophets, and there’s nowhere to hide: muck in, or nothing gets fixed.

We’re finally, fitfully, waking up to this approach. Scotland is getting smarter – in entrepreneurship support, place-based policymaking, infrastructure planning and more – about the impact of sharing and pooling rather than directing and cajoling.

My own sector, the voluntary/foundations world, has talked a good game on partnerships but is only just starting to put its money where its mouth is. Tentative engagement with environmental work, alternative finance, and skills support are evidence of a new philanthropic keenness to work on issues where we may share a concern for the macro-problem, but are by no means experts in ourselves in solving it.

The key to unlocking transformative partnerships (US shorthand ‘megacommunities’) is humility – how to manufacture it, sustain it and get your bosses and peers to value it. Transformative partnerships require participants to pool resources and innovations, ad to bury their vanities and rivalries. If you’re shouting ‘I did that bit’ everything falls apart in recrimination and parochialism.

The reward, to be understood by shareholders and voters, directors and trustees, is that by participating freely you might be a part of solving a huge long-term challenge. You may sacrifice the short-term smugness of ‘owning’ a project or innovation; but, as you cannot solve energy poverty, poor housing stock, low educational achievement or other big issues by the actions of one player alone, where is the real pride of ownership?

At Carnegie UK, we’ve been learning by doing in the partnerships approach. We’ve spent two years working with a multi-sector consortium to design a new national data platform for Scottish towns and cities called USP (www.usp.scot, launched this week). No single body owns the output, philanthropy and government have jointly funded it, and it has pooled intellectual property and adapted itself over many iterations and through even more debates.

We are currently working with local people, architects and social housing providers, government and agencies on Harris and Lewis to resurrect derelict crofts into viable, low energy dwellings for indigenous young families. I have no idea how it will develop, what we will contribute over time, what levers need pulling to make it happen. All we have now is a shared, topline vision of the social outcome for the future of sustainable housing. Exploratory, transformational partnerships indeed, even if in baby steps.

Moonshot thinking is great. Vaunting ambitions are wonderful. They attract entrepreneurs, social innovators, government leaders and philanthropists with equal enthusiasm. But we should remember what really answered  JFK’s moonshot challenge in the 1960s. Not a clever technologist, one dominating corporation or a single canny bureaucrat. It was a massive, multi-sector, society-wide collaboration of will, genius and resources. That’s the generosity of effort and ingenuity that might solve some of our contemporary, and no less challenging, conundrums.

Innovation, collaboration, generosity and hard work. Scotland should be pretty good at that.