The Twelve Principles of Strategic Partnering
A quick reference guide for Digital Business engagement

Collaborating across teams is tough. We're at the highway intersection of all that is change within an organisation, and it is so easy to be swept up by it rather than be the co-driver of it. As a consultant, I read broadly and in-depth about the evolving nature of how we work in technology. This consulting role allows me to speak to dozens of clients every month to validate where we, as a discipline, are. As a result, I've distilled these principles. You'll read these principles and think, "Well, that's obvious". That's the point. They should be self-evident truths.

Despite the apparent nature of these principles, there is still plenty of opportunity in our day-to-day work to apply them. In effect, we sabotage our ambition of wanting to be more strategic by allowing the distractions of other people's agendas to get in the way. So, armed with these principles, we can shine a light on our work, hold ourselves accountable to these principles, and determine whether we're positioning ourselves to be strategic partners in the long term. 

A simple application of this list is to ask a business stakeholder whether they agree to these principles. If they do, fine. You can further qualify this to ensure you have the remit and authority to conduct the extra/different activities to fulfil them. If not, it's an opportunity to clarify expectations and set the agenda. What principles would they agree to instead?

There is a rationale for each of the principles below the checkerboard.

1) A company, department or team must do something valuable for its stakeholders.

We often forget to look beyond the financial measures imposed on a company as if they are the only important thing. Sure, they're essential, but they aren't why a company exists. Why did the founders create the company in the first place? What problem is the team trying to solve? How are they trying to make life better? Asking questions like these helps us understand the core value offering.

2) Value needs to be expressed as clear outcomes.

Which market, what product or what service? What material impact will you have on those markets, products or services, and how will you know? Are there milestones or thresholds to be reached? Define success so that everybody knows once the goal has been reached. Measuring these attributes is fundamental to the success of the partnering role because it helps you fulfil principles 3, 4, 6 and 7.

3) To realise value, you must have an outcome and an activity and a link between that outcome and activity.

We can easily create to-do lists and project plans. By themselves, they do not justify their execution. We need to demonstrate how activities contribute to the outcome. Going shopping and cooking a meal may be fun, but the value obtained is only when my wife appreciates the prepared meal. A personal example of a link is: "To make my wife feel appreciated by cooking her a meal". If I don't achieve the outcome with the activity, I haven't realised the value... (I'm not a good cook)

4) Outcomes are refined and shaped by those who lead the destiny of that company, department or team.

Leaders, whether by title or by political nouse, who sway decisions in their favour have to define the outcomes they want and, equally importantly, be held accountable for them. Once defined, we can see whether they support the company's broader aims or have enlightened self-interest. Ensuring that definition occurs is crucial to ensure good governance, decision-making, prioritisation, etc.

5) Leaders must ensure long-term planning to ensure the viability of the company, department, or team.

A short-term fixation on the yearly budget or the quarterly revenue targets doesn't save the company from the latest technology trend, new competitor offering or legal compliance requirement. Long-term planning requires validated learning - experimentation to assess the best approach to take advantage of new opportunities or threats. The lessons learnt then inform a roadmap that scales prototypes into enterprise, mass market offerings. That process can take years. Think of Tesla Motors and how they started with the Roadster and ended up with the Model S  or the lead time to prove the efficacity of new drugs in the pharmaceutical industry.

6) To plan effectively, you must review the outcomes from past activities and decide how to improve future activities.

Planning should be looking forward out of the windscreen whilst checking the rear-view mirror. That is, in simple terms, incorporating the lessons learnt from previous implementations and applying the outcomes of continuous improvement techniques into our future activities. Sadly, we often don't make time for this in our schedules and miss out on a (great) reputation-building opportunity.

7) To plan and communicate the activity effectively, all stakeholders must understand the impact of the activity.

While developing business cases, we often need to appreciate some of the inherent risks involved in implementation. Will the users adopt the system or prefer to stick to the old one? Will there be enough helpdesk support for ongoing issue resolution once the system has gone live? Quite often, the only way to address these risks is to think of the activity from the stakeholder's perspective - What's in it for them? Once you've come up with a solution, the "sell" will be easier if you can articulate the benefits and features from their perspective.

8) To be an influencer, you must create trust with your stakeholders.

Trust is the emotional currency you create that you can use to trade with your stakeholders. The more trust you have, the more influence you can wield. People buy things from people they know. Buying is an emotional decision informed by their instinct about the other person. In other words,  "Trust". A simple example: "Can anyone recommend me a solicitor?" That "anyone" usually is your friends, business colleagues or family. Their advocacy is an implicit bargain of trust. Likewise, who are people going to trust in your organisation to ask for advice? Would you be recommended?

9) To create trust, you must have empathy in your relationships.

I've been in a few environments with little or no trust. Arrogance, refusal to listen, contempt, and lack of respect quickly turn a collaborative workplace into a minefield of backstabbing and blame. To overcome this hurdle, I've found being on the same "level" as your audience fundamental. What do I mean? Listening to understand their perspective (not waiting for the slightest pause to force your agenda); using the same language as they do; face-to-face contact; co-location in the same office; recognising that everybody has strengths and allowing them to shine through; respecting the opinion of others; and so on.

10) To create trust, you must plan, communicate the plan and execute the plan. 

You'll become a credible authority if you do these three things. If you can be relied on to set expectations and deliver those expectations, people will trust you, notwithstanding principles 8 and 9. A simple example: A plumber comes to fix a leaky tap. Did they turn up on time? Did they correctly diagnose the problem? Did they fix the issue and bill according to the quote? If yes, what are the chances you would use them again?

11) Planning, communicating and doing the plan happen concurrently, not sequentially.

The basic message here is to increase the number of cycles/iterations of our activity. Making minor adjustments frequently is better than sudden, unexpected movements infrequently. It helps in terms of managing the "no surprises" expectation.  Updates little and often to the plan, in communicating and in execution, have a cumulative effect over time. Lumping our activities, say, the yearly budgeting cycle, reinforces our short-term mindset of one year. The planning window for this one year is maybe 3-6 months, which, depending on the information you have to hand during that time, may be incomplete and not reflect future trends. To extend the planning window beyond six months, we have to dedicate time every week or month on a rolling basis to incorporate new information. How about planning with a time horizon of 3 years out, with a significant update every quarter?

12) The sooner you apply a small lesson learned, the bigger the value will be later.

Planning regularly helps identify risks, and if we're reviewing lessons learnt and making continuous improvements, we can demonstrate credibility by incorporating them earlier rather than later. The other aspect of this principle is "Validated Learning". We start from a position of unknowns to identify the potential solutions that need to be implemented in the next 2 to 3 years. Unfortunately, the best approach to reduce the number of unknowns is trial and error, i.e., a series of experiments to test what activities deliver the best outcome. From this, we can then make an informed selection of a few options. These lessons learnt help inform our strategy and build our roadmap.

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The Twelve Principles of Strategic Partnering
Baxter Thompson Ltd, Jon Baxter
27 June, 2024
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