How to Successfully Manage Cross-Sector Partnerships

November 3, 2021 4 minute read

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COVID-19, climate change, resource scarcity, conflict, and instability: These and other complex global challenges deeply impact today’s businesses.

They damage the bottom line and threaten a business’s growth, resilience, and stability—but they are too big for one company to tackle alone. Here, cross-sector partnerships can be a powerful tool: Collaborations between businesses, NGOs, governments, universities, and other institutions can generate innovative, multifaceted solutions to shared challenges, to advance global good and private sector opportunity.

But those solutions are only valuable if they are implemented effectively.  Many meticulously planned partnership projects fail to make an impact on the ground due to fumbled execution.  

Careful partnership design is essential to build the foundation for strong cross-sector collaboration. Yet, even for the best-planned partnerships, it can still be challenging to manage the relationships between partners to sustain momentum, effectively confront unforeseen issues, and take advantage of unexpected opportunities.  

Six Key Success Factors for Cross-Sector Partnership Implementation

Once a cross-sector partnership is up and running, there are six key factors for successful partnership management and implementation. 

1. Trust

Developing trust from the outset is essential to uniting cross-sector partners who may have radically different mandates and organizational cultures. But maintaining and reinforcing trust over time keeps a partnership together.

Partnership projects shift over time as they adapt to the complexity of the real world, but trust is the glue that holds partnerships together and helps partners adapt. Partners who trust each other can handle unforeseen circumstances by sharing information effectively, providing feedback constructively, and resolving differences as they arise.

To foster and maintain trust, be explicit and upfront about your goals related to the partnership: In other words, what does success really mean for you and your organization? What does the partnership need to achieve—and by when—and who within your organization needs to be on board? 

2. Quick Wins

It takes a substantial investment of time and energy to build and launch a partnership, which raises the stakes within many organizations.  It can take extra time to develop a working relationship in the early days of a partnership, so it can be helpful to build quick wins into your partnership plan, to keep supporters engaged and skeptics at bay.  

These don’t have to be major victories, but they should demonstrate progress toward the goal.  You should identify targets that:

  • Can be reached within the 90-day, quarterly reporting cycle that most organizations use;
  • Have a low risk of failure and a high probability of success;
  • Are narrow and focused enough in scope that they’re easy to explain and implement;
  • Give partners something concrete to celebrate, to promote buy-in within their organizations or from key external stakeholders.

3. Flexible, Adaptive Leadership

When you’re innovating to solve a complex problem, there will always be unforeseen challenges and new opportunities. So, it is critical to adapt as you go. This means pivoting when necessary and learning from mistakes, but also proactively scanning for new and better ways to scale impact. Related to this:

Your partnership will need a monitoring plan—it could be fairly “light touch” or more extensive—to track the results that matter and allow you to learn and adjust in real-time to optimize results.  

4. A High Degree of Accountability

For partnerships, accountability is absolutely key. 

First and foremost, partners need to be accountable to each other, fulfilling agreed-upon roles and responsibilities, and also communicating clearly and effectively when commitments fall behind or below expected levels. 

Then, partners need to hold themselves accountable to external stakeholders who may be interested in or impacted by the partnership. You should have a plan for communicating regularly and consulting with key outside stakeholders, to keep your partnership grounded in local realities and to ensure that those impacted by your partnership are informed and engaged.

By the same token, you should provide stakeholders within your organization with regular updates on successes, failures, and lessons learned.

Without appropriate accountability, partnerships weaken, founder, and lose touch with the places and people who matter most.

5. Robust Project Management

Executing a project in a single organization is complex and doing so with multiple outside partners in the context of a wickedly complex problem is even more so.  So, rigorous project management is essential. 

As a baseline, it’s important to break goals into discrete tasks, assign them to partners, set deadlines, and track completion using a partnership scorecard that can be as simple as a Google Doc or can draw on more sophisticated project management software. 

If you’re developing an innovative solution and moving into untested waters, using a stage-gating system can help manage the process by breaking it into clear phases separated by distinct decision points. At each decision point, partners review progress and determine whether they are prepared to advance to the next stage. As you go, documentation and reporting are key, and partners should build a shared archive of meeting notes, activity summaries, and correspondence files.  

6. Strong Relationship Management and Communication

As complex as they can become, partnerships are relationships at their core.  Managing those relationships and communicating clearly is essential to success.

These five factors are critical for effective partnership relationship management and communications:

  • Transparency. Companies, for example, can make big decisions fast that can impact a partnership.  So, it’s important to keep partners apprised of organizational shifts.  Your partners should hear it from you personally and ideally beforehand, rather than read about it after the fact in the news.
  • Consultation. Even when partnership-related activities seem to fall entirely in the domain of one organization, partners need to consult one another before making fundamental changes.
  • Consistency. Set a schedule of meetings to review progress and stick to it.  In between, it helps to set up instant messaging tools to keep communication lines open for swift, clear coordination and updates.
  • Collegiality. You’re all in this together, and you’re all human.  Lunches, dinners, and other informal gatherings can strengthen the interpersonal bonds that keep a partnership strong.
  • External Communication. Collaborations between high-profile organizations to solve sensitive problems can stir interest, questions, or even suspicion. Have a clear plan to communicate, consult, or more meaningfully engage with a range of target groups, including local government, community-level stakeholders, civil society organizations, and the press. This plan may include one-way channels like press releases and websites as well as two-way opportunities like advisory boards, webinars, and community consultations.

Cross-Sector Collaboration: Implementation for Impact

Cross-sector partnerships are a critical tool for solving the world’s biggest problems; yet, too many partnerships achieve very little after their launch event. Thoughtful implementation is paramount if your goal is to have real-world results.

The six success factors above will help you start your partnership off on the right foot and execute effectively across the partnership life cycle.

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Reach out to Steve Schmida directly to learn more about harnessing cross-sector collaboration for business and global development challenges.

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