Embracing Inherent Partnership Tensions


This past spring I participated in a conference on “Inherent Tensions in Networks”. The main theme was get comfortable with being uncomfortable when working in partnerships. When I work with partners I use a diversity of concepts and methods to support and enhance their work, including design and systems thinking and group dynamics. But “Polarity Thinking”, is one framework I use regularly. Like yin and yang, polarities are interdependent values that support each other.  Polarity Thinking is a term coined by American Barry Johnson in the early 1990s. It describes situations where there is truth and wisdom on more than one side of an issue; each side is incomplete without the wisdom and input of the other. Think of how often we fight about the “right” way to organize, when in fact we need some of both. It isn’t either/or it must but both/and. Jim Collins describes this so eloquently in his book, Good to Great as the “The Tyranny of the OR and the Power of the AND”.In partnerships when we get entrenched on one perspective or the other, both sides lose. Partnership leaders must be able to embrace diverse approaches and perspectives to be successful. Partners often face apparent differences and paradoxes: continuity and change, predictability and chaos, self-interest and common good. In partnerships, inherent tensions are often viewed as problems to be resolved once the "correct" answer is found. But when we consider only one direction - either A or B - we only see part of the picture.The strongest and most innovative partnerships realize it is not an either/or decision-making; two contrasting options can be pursued at the same time. To be successful in partnerships, collaborative leaders must leverage the value and diverse thinking and approaches of each partner. Let’s explore some of the inherent tensions found in partnerships. Self-interest & Common GoodThe most effective partnerships come together around a common vision/purpose that aims to achieve a common good. The goal is one that none could accomplish on their own. And yet everyone needs to benefit from a partnership or commitment will not be sustained – especially when times get tough. The most effective partnership work for both the common purpose AND the enlightened self-interest of partners.Visionary & Action-OrientedPartners must always maintain a focus on the practical tasks and action that need to get done in the partnership. At the same time, I encourage regular looks backs and reconfirmation of the vision of the group as the meaningful context for all those tasks on the ground.   A famous saying summarizes the importance of this inherent tension: “Vision without action is a dream; Action without vision is a nightmare.” Usual & UnusualWhen forming partnerships the traditional approach to is to choose the most powerful and most visible stakeholders.   Effective partnerships methodically look beyond the usual AND seek out “high leverage” stakeholders, often called the unusual suspect partners, who are well positioned to produce innovation and influence others. For example when forming the Math Minds Partnership the Calgary Public Library was an influential early partner.Power & Love To create lasting change we have to learn to work fluidly with two distinct, fundamental drives that are in tension: power—the single-minded desire to achieve one’s solitary purpose; and love—the drive towards unity.  They are seemingly contradictory but in fact complimentary. As Martin Luther King put it, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic.”Transparent & Discrete When people are open and take risks, share fears, concerns and hopes with others, it builds trust. Being open, honest and transparent with partners is a vital part of creating powerful long-term relationships. At the same time, discretion is needed. Not everything can or should be shared. In partnerships transparency and discretion is required. The critical balance is the good judgement to know when to use each.Action-Oriented & ReflectivePartnerships must be action-oriented if they are to achieve the big goals they set out.   But partnerships must also learn and adapt as they advance their work. This requires reflection. Partnership benefit from reflective practice that helps to understand what is working and what is not. John Dewey the famous American education reformer famously stated, “You don’t learn from experience, you learn from reflecting on that experience.”Unity and DiversityPartnerships need to have a shared vision that propels the work forward and acts as glue when the going gets tough (as it inevitably will!). As different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives get blended cognitive diversity will increase. Cognitive diversity is defined as the differences in our thought and problem-solving processes. When I work with partners I ensure we take the time to explore each other’s values and unique, diverse ways of looking at an issue. This diversity is what adds value and drives innovation.Get comfortable being uncomfortableEvery partnership must get comfortable with discomfort. It’s challenging right? But to make the social changes we need we all have to be prepared to step out of our comfort zones and embrace the complex challenge of partnerships – with all their inherent tensions.  With a little practice, feeling uncomfortable is something you can get used to – and definitely grow from.Canadian Partnership Training AnnouncedPartnerships and collective impact initiatives are growing in Canada. The people involved in the partnering process are key. This four-day Partnership Broker Training course builds their knowledge and skills and provides the tools and insights to deliver positive partnering results. For more information: partnershiptraining@jsdaw.comFour Partnership Brokers Training Courses in CanadaAdvanced Skills, Edmonton - Oct. 1 - 5, 2018Partnership Brokers Training, Calgary - Oct. 9 - 12, 2018Partnership Brokers Training, Toronto - Oct. 15 - 18 2018Partnership Brokers Training, Vancouver - Feb. 25 - 28, 2019PLEASE NOTE: Alberta and Vancouver Courses Available for Training Grants!