How to build more effective partnerships

Four tips from the designer's toolbox

Partnerships are becoming increasingly important to achieve any company's goals, and of course, the global sustainability goals. Yet, most partnerships fail. It can be challenging to find common grounds and ways of working effectively towards a solution. But there are ways to make this work easier and more fruitful. In this article, Ulla Sommerfelt shares her tips on how to build better partnerships.

This article is an adaptation of Ulla Sommerfelt’s presentation at D.I.’s (Danish Industry) Creative Summit on June 23rd, 2021.

1. Visualize

If there’s one tip I'd like you to remember after reading this article, it is this – visualise. When you bring different people together to solve a problem or to create something, you can be certain that they will have varying points of view, backgrounds, and ideas. If you rely solely on words to try to create a shared understanding, it might be challenging to get through to each other. However, if you add visual tools to the conversation, it gets easier to understand the others’ contexts and intentions. By using simple sketches, you can visualise people's roles in the partnership and better see how different parts connect.

By visualising, prototyping, and building the process as you go, you can get better results. It allows you to test your ideas out. Seeing them gives you and your partners something concrete to discuss. Moreover, it provides excellent value to also visualise the end result once you have it. Apart from giving everyone who participated a great sense of accomplishment and understanding of what's you've achieved, it can also be a helpful communication tool when explaining the partnership and its goals to external stakeholders.

We’re currently working on a social impact project with several stakeholders involved, including the Municipality of Copenhagen. The aim is to create a more holistic approach to support young people in vulnerable social situations. In this project, an important step has been to use visualisation to understand the problem and find possible solutions.

2. Use an external facilitator

It’s a human thing to become blind to things that are close to us, and we often don’t see problems and possible solutions clearly when we’re directly involved in them. That’s why it’s essential to include third parties in the process. An external facilitator who isn't a stakeholder in the project can ensure an impartial approach to the problem, shine a light on different perspectives, and focus on the big picture. Here, it’s important to remember that it’s not another expert on the matter that you should be looking for. When we’re tackling complex issues with many stakeholders from various fields, we need to create a shared understanding of the problem. For that, you need a neutral facilitator that can guide the subject matter experts in dialogue, help them understand each other's perspectives, and find solutions where they overlap.

3. Embrace uncertainty

If there’s one thing that people from the creative industries know how to do, it’s dealing with uncertainty and staying in it for as long as it takes. Dealing with uncertainty can be very unsettling if you’re an expert and used to having all the answers or expecting every problem to have a ready-to-go recipe for solving it. But, when you're aiming to create something new and truly innovative, especially when many stakeholders are involved, the process is rarely linear. There are no ready answers. It's essential to be open, look for different perspectives, angles, and solutions. To try and err, to create and demolish, to build and rebuild. This includes learning how to kill those famous darlings that everyone has.

Being able to discard ideas that don't work is a noble and necessary skill. Far too often do we cling to solutions that don't work, just because we liked the idea of them, and we end up wasting both time and money. Learn how to kill your darlings!

4. Do business with people, not with organisations

When we talk about partnerships, we often think about the organisations that are part of them. And, of course, it’s the organisations financing the project and hoping to get a return on investment. However, it is people who will execute, and we need to remember that we're all human, with flaws, insecurities, fears, and needs. If we consider this and run the process accordingly, taking care to create a sense of safety and unity, we have greater chances of succeeding.

Organisations, alone or joint, only reach their desired results by thinking and acting long-term. Short-term goals and KPIs that reward silo-based thinking get in the way of the big picture and goal. For this reason, it's vital that we deal with people in a respectful, transparent, and empathetic manner and use methodologies adapted to human needs. It’s is people who will bring both individual organisations and partnerships where they need, and wish, to be.

Sounds interesting?

Ulla Sommerfelt

Get in touch with CEO
Ulla Sommerfelt
+47 922 97 440

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