My top ten “pills” for partnership headaches (Part One)

A big part of public librarianship is community partnerships. In a world of shrinking budgets and misplaced perceptions, Public libraries survive by networking with relevant community groups, non-profit organizations, businesses and government institutions. Some partnerships are obligations; Some are by choice; Others just happen because of circumstance.

My job is two-parts technology, one part partnerships. So, now I feel a little qualified to say something about partnerships. So, I created this “top ten pills” list for partnership. It will take me two entries to explain this all.

  1. Partnerships are hard.
  2. Dimension One: Risk
  3. Dimension Two: Relationship
  4. Have a Plan
  5. Know How to Negotiate
  6. Separate Your Pain from Your Customer’s Pleasure
  7. Find Your Avatar
  8. Be Your Avatar
  9. Key Support
  10. Communicate the Vision
  • Partnerships are Hard

I get annoyed at people who rah-rah about partnerships. “So many advantages,” they say. “Collaboration means less waste” they say. Yet, when I head home and do some light reading I read about how hard the dating scene is.

Isn’t it odd that we live in a world that thinks a no-obligation meeting of two individuals, motivated (perhaps) by the prospect of a long-term relationship is *harder* than a high-risk meeting of two organizations consisting of many individual personalities and interests and an uncertain prospect of future benefit?

The answer to this puzzle is that we assume the dating scene has a direct emotional impact on who we are as people, and that the organizational partnership is nothing personal — just business as usual. Anyone who has gone through a civil budgeting process will know how emotional partnerships can be when the chips are down, someone has not pulled through, or a deadline is quickly looming.

The point is that partnerships are not fun by default. They are work. The benefits libraries earn from partnerships go to the customer and not to the staff. I think this is a positive thing. However, it requires that you take an extra step back when you ask yourself “what’s the ROI here?” The returns may be higher than you think and the emotional investment ought not be considered too highly when you think about cutting the cord. Work is supposed to challenge — it cannot always be fun.

  • Dimension One — Risk

There are two dimensions to partnerships that decide how formal they should be. The first is risk.

Economists and Philosophers will recall Game Theory, Nash’s equilibrium and the Prisoner’s Dilemna. The general point of these logic games is “even if two or more individuals serve to benefit significantly by collaborating, and gather the most cost by competing, they may still choose to compete due to the risk factor created by the other “balking” on a commitment.” Wikipedia offers more on the prisoner’s dilemma and Game Theory.

There are two ways to break the prisoner’s dilemma. The first is formal agreement, backed by a neutral yet powerful body who can punish the person for “balking” on the agreement. The second is collaboration over time. Given practice of the prisoner’s dilemma over time, the competitors will eventually learn to trust each other and collaborate effectively.

If the risks are high, and there is no previous relationship between the partners, then a formal agreement is required. A library cannot risk “practising” high-stakes partnerships, hoping that the trust relationship will develop quickly and everyone will be happy. High risk usually refers to high-money, but can also mean high community image-impact, a serious change in organizational culture and strategy or high-level resource sharing.

The basic tenure of this rule is simple. If there’s risk involved, get your agreement in writing.

  • Dimension Two — Relationships

Formal agreements are costly, however, and sometimes the written-down solution to a partnership seems overly dogmatic and restrictive. Sometimes it is better to start small and build the trust relationship over a few pilot projects, rather than jumping right into a big consortial arrangement.

Informal relationships can be developed in many ways. Here are three examples.

  1. Small, simple projects that lead toward larger collaborations.
  2. Use open space or world cafe to spark interest and/or commitment to mutual projects.
  3. Simply keep lines of communication open and wait for opportunities to share knowledge.
  • Have a Plan

A partnership plan is a good way to approach partnerships. Public Libraries have no shortage of people coming up to them asking for support for various projects and activities.

Sometimes projects speak “partnership” when, in fact, they mean “your support.” In other words, sometimes libraries find themselves involved in projects that require many resources, with little return on the investment. For public libraries, that means tax dollars intended for library services get re-allocated to the local community group. In my view, this is not only sadly annoying, but it is an unethical and undemocratic approach to librarianship.

But a plan that sets priorities, outlines library interests and highlights broad sectors appropriate for partnership can help set the tone for such projects. That way, a branch manager who is approached by a community group with a project idea can say “this is not a library priority right now” or “let’s talk about this further.” Clear direction on partnerships is bound to provide a more positive partnership experience for everyone involved.

  • Know How to Negotiate

I really can’t offer more than what Getting to Yes can offer. Know your own interests, establish a BATNA (best alternative to no agreement), and insist that furture actions or agreements focus on the mutual problem that both of you are trying to resolve with the partnership.

Negotiations, when done well, are very positive and invigorating for both parties. Everyone should feel good after an agreement has been established — otherwise you risk the prospect of someone saying one thing, but not following through. Partnerships are exercises in leadership as well as in relationships.

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