I’m not a science expert, but I do remember some basic principles from high school chemistry. For one, if you combine certain chemicals, sometimes you get a compound that takes on new chemistry (like sodium and chloride combining to become table salt or calcium and carbon combining to become marble). I also remember that certain combinations cause chemical reactions: combine two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen and you get – wait for it – water! I find that fascinating because both hydrogen and oxygen are gases, but combined in certain proportions and you get a liquid. Cool! It’s also interesting to note that hydrogen by itself is highly explosive (think Hindenburg), but oxygen isn’t – it can’t burn. So combining the two neutralizes the flammable potential of hydrogen.
Why the science lesson? Because I believe the same principles of chemistry – the ability to combine different elements and create a new substance – apply to business relationships, partnerships, and collaborations. Combine different people onto a team or combine different teams/organizations into each other you can potentially create new value that otherwise can’t be achieved…
Webster defines business partnership as “an association of two or more people as partners.” Synonyms include cooperation, collaboration, coalition, alliance, union, affiliation, relationship, connection – all words to describe a combination of different elements to create a new (hopefully more powerful) element. The Baldrige Framework distinguishes slightly between partners (key organizations or individual who are working concert with your organization to achieve a common goal or improve performance, typically in a formal and more permanent arrangement) and collaborators (organizations or individuals who cooperate with your organization to support a particular activity or event or who cooperate intermittently when their short-term goals are aligned with yours).
In business, in sports, or in our personal lives, both partnerships and collaborations are similar: when you team up with someone with complementary strengths, you create a powerful combination. In fact, in the best partnerships, weaknesses cancel out and strengths build upon each other.
Think about the powerful combinations you’ve seen professionally, where one person is the visionary and the other is great at execution; or where one is more cautious but the other takes more intelligent risks; or where one sees the big picture and the other focuses on the details. These combinations can round out effective teams – the diversity in skill sets, perspectives, and tendencies can create powerful partnerships that are highly effective at accomplishing mutual goals.
I ran across an article from a few years ago written by Rodd Wagner and Gale Muller entitled “Why Partners Need Complementary Strengths” (a summary of their longer book “Power of 2: How to Make the Most of Your Partnerships at Work and in Life”). Working with Gallup, Wagner and Muller spent five years researching what makes a successful partnership. They interviewed hundreds of professionals, posing hundreds of statements that relate to partnerships. They found that 23 statements were predictive of successful partnerships, and that three were the most important for determining how well collaborators’ abilities mesh with each other:
- We complement each other’s strengths.
- We need each other to get the job done.
- He or she does some things much better than I do, and I do some things much better than he or she does.
Their research found that successful partnerships don’t just have interdependence, but a mutual recognition of it. And they contend that “characteristics that make a partnership solid could be anything from a physical attribute (the height of a basketball forward) or a credential (a medical license) to experience in a certain field (a decade as an architect) or personal reputation (a relationship with every media buyer in the market).”
You and your teammates should be able to name these qualities without much hesitation: “I bring __________ to the partnership; my partner adds __________.” Steve Jobs brought creative vision and Steve Wozniak brought technical expertise. Michael Jordan brought incredible leadership, drive, and offensive shooting ability, while Scotty Pippen effectively ran the offense as point guard but also had very strong defensive skills.
I believe there are at least three implications of Wagner and Muller’s insights:
- First, recognition is half the challenge. According to Wagner and Muller:
“Before you can forge a successful alliance, you must understand what you bring to the combination, and equally important, what you don’t. Collaboration is more than doubling up [more than just two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen]. The key to achieving success is not trying to be someone else or striving to be as good as your collaborator at whatever he does best or seeking to be universally proficient. It’s in discovering your own exceptional abilities, recognizing your weaknesses, and understanding how someone else’s abilities complement your own.”
This requires getting to know your teammates – spending time understanding their strengths (and weaknesses) and exploring how those strengths might play off each other. There are many diagnostic tools out there that facilitate this type of recognition – like DISC, Myers-Briggs, Strengths Finder, Core Values Index, and others (a workshop on finding your purpose and Core Values Index will be hosted by PEN February 6 in Rochester).
It also implies that leaders should be building and cultivating teams that have complementary skills and perspectives. Recruiting, hiring, and developing diverse teams are not just slogans, but real strategies that produce powerfully effective collaborations.
- Second, effective partnerships require partners to, as Wagner and Muller say, “resist the ego-gratifying temptation to take too much credit. If a person honestly recognizes that his counterpart does some things much better than he does and that he needs the other person to get the job done, he is less susceptible to fall into the trap of conceit. In a strong partnership, both participants are always promoting the abilities of the other.”
Think of the highest performing teams you’ve participated on or witnessed: they usually speak in terms of “we” or “us” rather than “I” or “me.” There is little or no arrogance – to succeed, everybody needs everybody.
- Finally, successful collaboration requires humility and an acknowledgment that no one can excel at everything. In other words, it requires focus. In today’s society, there is pressure to try to be all things to all people. But Wagner and Muller’s research suggests that doing just a few things exceptionally well leads to more success than spreading yourself thinly across dozens of disciplines. Focus on your strengths and find others to shore up your weaknesses with their strengths.
Wagner and Muller state it this way: “Admit it: you stink at some things. You have blind spots, weaknesses, areas in which others seem to perform effortlessly while you struggle just to be average. You are also overly modest about your strengths. What seems to be no big deal to you is difficult for others. Your strengths are stronger and your weaknesses weaker than you realize. You need help. You are also precisely the help someone else needs.” I couldn’t have said it better!
I believe these concepts work at all levels – on teams (professional and sports), in families and personal relationships, and between organizations. Think of the most powerful partnerships you’ve seen between organizations (Jaguar-Land Rover, Sony-Erickson, Siemans-Nokia). The same principles apply to collaborating organizations as collaborating professionals: partners need to recognize each others’ strengths (core competencies), resist the temptation to take too much credit, and be humble enough to focus on true strengths while letting partners focus on theirs.
Great partnerships don’t just happen by themselves – they require deliberate nurturing and, according to Wagner and Muller’s research, they all share the same crucial ingredients:
“Complementary Strengths: Everyone has weaknesses and blind spots that create obstacles to reaching a goal. One of the most powerful reasons for teaming up is working with someone who is strong where you are weak, and vice versa. Individuals are not well-rounded, but pairs can be.
A Common Mission: When a partnership fails, the root cause is often that the two people were pursuing separate agendas. When partners want the same thing badly enough, they will make the personal sacrifices necessary to see it through.
Fairness: Humans have an instinctive need for fairness. Because the need for fairness runs deep, it is an essential quality of a strong partnership.
Trust: Working with someone means taking risks. You are not likely to contribute your best work unless you trust that your partner will do his or her best. Without trust, it’s easier to work alone.
Acceptance: We see the world through our own set of lenses. Whenever two disparate personalities come together, there is bound to be a certain friction from their differences. This can be a recipe for conflict unless both learn to accept the idiosyncrasies of the other.
Forgiveness: People are imperfect. They make mistakes. They sometimes do the wrong thing. Without forgiveness, the natural revenge motives that stem from friend-or-foe instincts will overpower all the reasons to continue a partnership, and it will dissolve.
Communicating: In the early stages of a partnership, communicating helps to prevent misunderstandings; later in the relationship, a continuous flow of information makes the work more efficient by keeping the two people synchronized.
Unselfishness: In the best working relationships, the natural concern for your own welfare transforms into gratification in seeing your comrade succeed. Those who have reached this level say such collaborations become among the most fulfilling aspects of their lives.”
Strong partnerships take work – they require the right individuals (or teams or organizations) to come together for a common purpose, recognizing and leveraging each others’ strengths to create something better than you could have as individuals. They take time, practice, humility, transparency and trust. But – just like hydrogen and oxygen alone can’t create water – they often facilitate the creation of new elements, new value, and new levels of performance.
What comments do you have regarding the power of partnerships? Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment. And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!
Yours in Performance Excellence,
Brian S. Lassiter
President, Performance Excellence Network
Catalyst for Success Since 1987!
Photo credit referenceforbusiness.com, ncap.info