The Chemistry Between Us: Partnerships and the Power of Relationships

By Dave Prescott, Associate, The Partnering Initiative

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 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 TPI’s experience – and an important underlying principle of its partnership training - 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, though 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 crisis moments, partnerships can quickly unravel and people will revert to the safety of their organisational or disciplinary silos.

TPI is chairing a session on these ‘soft’ issues at the forthcoming Global Partnerships Week, as part of a focussed discussion on what makes for healthy, well-functioning partnerships. It will draw in part on TPI’s partnership healthcheck tool (see Tool 10 on page 39 of 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, so 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 recognising the central role that these invisible bonds play in effective collaboration.

For further information on The Partnering Initiative please see our website or follow us on Twitter. Or contact us if you have any questions.

TPI will be running a 2.5 day training on Building Effective Partnerships for Development, in D.C., alongside Global Partnerships week, from March 8th to 10th. The training will also run in Oxford from May 15th to 18th. Find out more and register.