Skip to content
The Innovation Process
All Enabling Factors

Partner and collaborate with others

What constitutes a partnership differs from organisation to organisation, but the key is to understand what types of partnerships you have and what types you need to build.

Innovation necessarily involves bringing something new into a team and organisation; therefore, you often won’t have – within your team, or even in your organisation – all the necessary skills, experience and capabilities required to develop a successful innovation.

Partnerships can bring fresh insights, experience, skills, worldviews and knowledge to a problem. Multi-disciplinary teams are vital to ensure all the dimensions of a problem are understood and can be worked on. Partnerships can often be cross-sector, between NGOs or UN agencies and actors from the public or private sectors.

Partnerships bring new capabilities into the development of your solution, such as creative expertise, technological expertise, access to users, access to funds or a licence to operate. It is rare to have truly successful innovations without some form of partnership. Complex problems require multi-disciplinary teams and multi-stakeholder partnerships to solve them.

“One of the things we’ve found most effective is to partner with organisations that are already doing innovative work. My focus is on trying to identify organisations we can work with, and helping to structure those agreements and projects.” Nathan Cooper, IFRC (interview)

Understand types of partnership and key attributes

The main types of partnership and the key attributes for effective partnering are highlighted below. If you are partnering, it is worth assessing the partnership to see how many of these attributes it has. The fewer of them, the more transactional the relationship; the more of them, the more transformative the partnership is.

Transactional partnerships are those where each party is solely out to maximise their own interests, with no regard for the others’ interests. This is often seen in supplier–vendor relationships. Transformational relationships are where each party is seeking to create new value that is mutually beneficial for all parties involved.

5 common partnerships types for humanitarian innovation

  1. Funding partners: often termed as partnerships, but rarely move beyond the transactional
  2. Implementation partners: where you are working with others on the implementation of an innovation
  3. Vendor partners: where you are contracting others to deliver products or services
  4. Co-creation partners: where you are working with others to co-create new value
  5. Cross-sector partners: where you are working with organisations from other sectors, such as the private sector, academia or government

10 key attributes of effective partnering

According to the Parnership Brokering Association (2011), there are 10 key attributes of effective partnering:

  1. A clear understanding between partners of the word ‘partnership’
  2. Agreement to a shared vision and common purpose
  3. Account taken of, and allowance being made for, individual partners’ interests
  4. The co-creation of design, decisions and solutions
  5. Commitment to sharing risks as well as benefits
  6. Every partner contributes resources (whether tangible or intangible)
  7. Partners share decision-making and leadership responsibilities
  8. Partners commit to mutual/horizontal accountability
  9. Partners work together to develop a principled approach to their partnership endeavours
  10. Attention is paid to the partnering process as well as the partnership’s projects

The partnering cycle, as outlined by the Partnership Brokers Association, has four main stages:

  1. Scoping and building
  2. Managing and maintaining
  3. Reviewing and revising
  4. Sustaining outcomes

A useful guidance tool for partnerships is the Building Partnerships Map. This tool breaks down the 4 stages into 12 steps, with accompanying guidance.

We recommend that this process is only used for partnerships which you hope and expect to be value-creating and transformational, and where you are aiming to develop the majority of the 10 attributes of effective partnerships.

Learn from the success and failures of other innovation partnerships

Partnering for innovation is different in a number of ways to partnering on ‘business-as-usual’ projects. Here are nine key lessons we’ve learned on innovation partnerships, plus two more on collaboration for good measure!

  1. Ensure a shared understanding of the type of partnership: Too many times, partners are not clear about what type of partnership they have: one partner might see it as a joint-value creation partnership, when the other sees it as a transactional vendor partnership. This can lead to misaligned expectations and, ultimately, damaged relationships.
  2. Spend time on your Memorandum of Understanding (MoU): You may want to move quickly and be agile, but you need to ensure that you have documented what you’ve agreed. Nothing reduces agility more than trying to untangle and resolve issues because agreements are not thorough or properly documented.
  3. Consider multi-stakeholder partnerships vs bilateral partnerships: If you have multiple partners, analyse whether it is a multi-lateral partnership you are trying to agree or a series of bilateral partnerships. The more transactional, the more you should go with bilateral, the more co-creative, the more you should spend time on trying to set up a multi-stakeholder partnership.
  4. You need the right partners at the right time: Much of the existing partnership theory and practice is based upon long-term partnerships with agreed end goals. Innovation is more exploratory and, critically, the right partners for one stage of an innovation may not be the right ones for the next stage. There is often a need to change partnerships between piloting and scaling, as many partners cannot scale at the same rate as each other.
  5. Beware of the ‘ladder of inference’: When working across organisations and sectors, we naturally have assumptions and biases regarding what the thinking and motives of our partners are. A useful tool for exposing and addressing these assumptions and biases is the ‘Ladder of Inference’ (Senge et al, 1994). It helps your team to address any underlying assumptions and biases that you might have about other people and organisations you are collaborating with.
  6. Good translation of technical language is vital: Our research with ALNAP (Obrecht and Warner, 2016) has found that when partnering across sectors, there will need to be at least one person (preferably more) who can talk the language and understand the dominant thinking of the humanitarian sector and the other sectors from which your partners come. This ability to translate is critical. It sometimes calls for a broker (see point 7 below).
  7. Brokering a partnership can be difficult: If your partnership is really one of equals, then employing a skilled guide and facilitator to help you navigate it can be invaluable, particularly if this objective and independent person is able to translate across the sectors you have in the partnership.
  8. Invest time in managing the partnership: Do not underestimate the time it takes to manage a truly co-creative partnership and multi-stakeholder partnerships. Ensure that you budget the time and funds necessary for this.
  9. Get agreement on intellectual property (IP) rights: When involved in co-creation, it is critical to agree on what happens with the intellectual property that is created. There has been a tendency in some quarters to push for the open sourcing of humanitarian innovation IP. On the surface, this would appear sensible, and following humanitarian principles. However, what you do with your IP has a significant impact on the sustainability and success of your future business model, and how your innovation can scale. Open sourcing IP can be counterproductive to reducing humanitarian suffering, if it constrains the potential of the innovation to scale. That said, there are numerous business models that can underpin open sourced IP. When it comes to partnerships, the key is to decide what happens with the ownership of the IP early on.

The Ladder of Inference is a good tool to help you check inherent unintentional biases and assumptions that each of the partners, or collaborators might have.

The step-by-step reasoning process helps you remain objective and reach a shared conclusion without conflict.