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Do your partnerships keep failing? It's time to address these 3 risks.

By Vidal Seegobin

July 2, 2020

    One of the unintended positive consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic is that it has brought a shared purpose to organisations both inside and outside of health care: to successfully mitigate the impacts of the novel coronavirus.

    How health systems across the world have responded to Covid-19

    This common goal has opened the door for health care providers to consider different kinds of partnerships to navigate our shared, uncertain future.

    While a common purpose is critical, it's not the only ingredient necessary to build a fruitful and sustainable partnership. For a partnership to add net-positive value to all parties, all participating executive teams need to mitigate three common risks.

    Risk #1: You don't understand each other's business models

    Many progressive health care organisations have the ambitious strategic goal to partner around patients' clinical and non-clinical needs. (Think housing and health care partnerships. Or more recently, hospital and public health partnerships.)

    But our research finds many of these partnerships fail because partners aren't transparent with each other on their broader economics or enterprise objectives.

    Without that vital information, we lack the context for understanding partner decisions and actions. And those misunderstandings undermine trust—a key ingredient in successful partnerships. This can be even more pronounced among partners who assume they're operating with the same business fundamentals simply because they're both in health care.

    What to do instead: Establish an "exchange program" to build common understanding

    At the very beginning of the business partnership, set up a mini-exchange program. Spend a little time at each other's sites. Allow your teams to get to know each other. And pull forward questions about how you each operate as a business and how you make decisions.

    This doesn't have to be so in-depth as to give away trade secrets—but share enough to give your partner a strong sense of where you're coming from.

    For example, one integrated care network in northern England created cheat sheets on each partner in the network before kicking off cross-organisation collaboration.

    Risk #2: You ignore power asymmetries

    Nearly every business-to-business partnership talks about the relationship as a coalition of equals. But size, political connections, and prestige are rarely equal across any partnership. In health care, hospitals often struggle to partner in good faith with other providers because their size and clout engender fears of 'being taken over' or 'controlled'. Those seeds of distrust are poison to a partnership.

    What to do instead: Proactively recognise and address power imbalances

    More of the work here is incumbent on the partner that is seen as having more power. While not a sure-fire solution, we've seen successful partnerships built around diplomatic habits that signal equality between partners. In part, it's vocabulary—talking about 'our patients' or 'our consumers'. In part, it's the cadence and location of where you meet. Often, it's just about being aware that the power asymmetry exists and speaking about it honestly instead of pretending it's not there.

    Risk #3: You assume a shared understanding about your consumer

    The most novel kinds of business partnerships are built around the end user. That requires a deep, shared understanding of the consumer and how the partnership will support the user.

    But organisations of all stripes over-estimate how well they really understand their consumers. Two organisations can multiply the risk of error. We build plans in board rooms based on individual and shared assumptions and then blame each other when the partnership performance doesn't return the results we expected.

    What to do instead: Deconstruct and test your assumptions

    Conduct a two-step journey mapping exercise for the new experience you're trying to build. First, bring together stakeholders from both organisations and map, even on paper, what you expect the end user to know, feel, and do. Look for gaps in the experience, where the end user might be unclear on the next step, and when lulls in support arise. Then trial run the proposed experience with end users.

    This exercise can help your partnership realise how many initial assumptions were incorrect. Further, the intel will be incontrovertible since it won't be based on a single partner's perspective. Rather, it will come from multiple stakeholders, including the individuals or groups you're serving.

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