In Forging Partnerships, Avoid Putting Form Over Function

Can I get to London on a bicycle?

“Let’s just pick a structure and then worry about the details,” said the board chair of one of two organizations contemplating a partnership. The consultant was trying to get the joint negotiations committee focused on what they hoped to accomplish through a partnership, and the board chair kept citing his experience working through three bank mergers.

“I understand your desire to get to a decision,” the consultant replied, “but we’ll get there sooner if you know where you want to go.” She again pointed the group to to the list of decisions that would need to be made regarding programs, staffing, the financial model, whether all the program locations would be retained, and what changes might be needed in governance and staff leadership.

The board chair continued, undaunted. “Well, there’s a known number of options, from consolidating our back office operations to a program partnership to a merger.  Let’s just list the pros and cons of each.”

His idea began to gather up steam among the committee. After all, they were eager to make a decision and move forward; one CEO had plans to retire in two months and both organizations were feeling the squeeze of declining public funds….

This vignette illustrates a critical conundrum in forging strategic partnerships. Board members (and CEOs) frequently want to make a decision on structure first, with the idea that everything else will then neatly fall into place. The only problem with this is that they may end up deciding they want a bicycle for its cheaper cost and environmental and health benefits, only to discover later that they can’t get to their desired destination on that bicycle, but instead need a jet plane.

Figuring out where you want to go and determining all of the things you’ll need to get there is the smart beginning point in forming partnerships. Rushing to the decision on structure may leave you with your bags packed only to discover you can’t get where you want to go on the vehicle you chose.

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