Five valuable ideas for a productive partnership

I was asked to speak at a National Outsourcing Association (NOA) Public Sector Event in London recently. I described my talk in the abstract as: “A lightning tour of my five most valuable ideas for creating highly collaborative, highly productive client/supplier partnerships”.

I thought that some of my team might also be interested and decided to lay out those ideas in a blog so here we go!

I can’t promise that they’ll be as valuable to you as they have been to me, neither can I promise that adopting them will be easy. We don’t live in Hogwarts, magic isn’t real. Mostly, success comes from consistent hard work over a long period. A bit of luck is often in the mix too and I’m not ashamed of that.

So, to my valuable ideas:

Everyone’s a winner

I don’t imagine many people will recognise these four young ladies.

The one on the left of the picture, in the “21” shirt, is called Dorothy Scouler. She was my Grandma and in 1926 she travelled to Gothenburg and with her three team mates ran the 4 by 80m relay and brought home the Olympic gold medal.

For me, it’s a powerful image that conjures up the very essence of winning.

Unfortunately, it’s not completely aligned with my deeply held beliefs as in order for her to win, some others had to lose.

In my personal and professional life, I don’t believe that it has to be like this and when we search hard for ways to help everyone win, things are better. And by “everyone”, I mean all the stakeholders we touch and whose lives we affect. Of course it includes our clients, and our shareholders and our people. It also includes the individual people who work for our clients and all of our families. It includes our suppliers. Win-Win is for everyone.

I first came across the Idea of Win-Win when I read a book given to me by a partner at Eversheds in about 2000. The book was called Getting to Yes by Ury and Fisher. If you’re interested in some more background to this idea, I definitely recommend having a look at this book (or give me a call for a chat!).

The Illusion of Certainty

I’m not certain of much but surely, there can’t be many people in the world who haven’t seen this simple optical illusion:

We all know that the lines are the same length (I promise they are). But still it seems that the top one is shorter.

When I was a young man, I was certain about many things. As the years pass, I find there’s less and less that I’m really certain about. I learned to distrust certainty in myself and to question it in others. I learned to prepare myself for a changing world and be ready to roll with it. Not to long for things that might have been, but just be as good as I can at dealing with a new reality.

More specifically, I find that we’re not very good at conceptualising large transformations and predicting the effect that deploying big new systems will have on the hearts, minds and actions of the stakeholders. The bigger the new systems and the longer the gestation, the worse we’ll be at predicting the effect. The very act of deploying the new system, or way of working, changes the context.

Through the passage of time our world changes in extraordinary ways that are difficult or impossible to foresee. When we give it a prod by initiating some sort of transformation, the results are no less difficult to predict. In my experience, it’s generally easier to be successful by giving a small prod more frequently and adjusting the approach depending on what we observe. We call this an iterative approach and I believe it’s well proven.

Whoops!

Or “I never meant that to happen!”.

Or “The law of unintended consequences!”

I found this cartoon and it seemed to sum up perfectly how the seeds of our undoing can be buried deep within the actions we put in place to secure our position.

In my view, there is a particular type of seed that can cause real problems and economists call them “perverse incentives”. Sometimes contracts are littered with them.

The kudos or money that might be associated with the perverse incentive, can drive strange and unusual behaviours. When Sergei Bubka (an international pole vaulter) was given a cash bonus for each time he broke the world record, few guessed that he would then break it something like 30 times over the next 10 years. Each time by about 1cm.

If you ask any developer about being bonused on lines of code they’ll probably roll their eyes. In general, it just makes them write more verbose code and then a strange cat and mouse game begins as the controllers try to stop the code becoming too verbose and the developers spend time justifying the verbosity.

Any skilled developer can increase the lines per day by at least 10 per cent and it will be undetectable. This example is a bit of a cliché in the development world but applies just the same to many metrics that might be suggested: velocity, bugs per line of code and many more that have the same weaknesses. When a good measure becomes a target, it ceases being a good measure.

The whoops moments aren’t limited to perverse incentives in the contract though. For example, how we behave when someone brings a problem to our attention has a huge impact on the likelihood of future problems being brought into the sunlight.

I’m sure there are books that could be written about unintended consequences, but for now, I feel I’ve written enough so onto my next idea…

Trees have leaves

When I was about 40, I was in denial about my eyesight which was failing for distance vision. I remember with crystal clarity the day I got my first pair of glasses. I put them on, went into my garden and the suddenly rediscovered knowledge that “trees have leaves” was astonishing.

They aren’t just green splodges of colour on top of a stick. They have leaves, bark, roots, creatures that live in them and they oxygenate our planet. They’re complex and it’s easy to underestimate them.

It’s often just the same in business life. I can trick myself into thinking that a team or a supplier or a client is an entirely rational, deterministic organism that doesn’t have to cope with the messy complexities that are going on in my own life right now. Of course, the opposite is true. Teams and clients and suppliers are made up of people. And people are complex. We forget things that we’ve known. We misunderstand things that should be clear. We make mistakes and sometimes, we have a bad day. Our memories fail us and we are not deterministic or entirely rational.

We don’t do extraordinary things because someone told us to. We don’t do extraordinary things because someone pays us to. We do extraordinary things when we’re inspired by a vision of how the world could be different and believe that we can help to make it so.

Opening up multiple lines of communication between client and supplier is really important. Investing time to help everyone understand what we’re trying to achieve and how and why pays big dividends. Creating an environment where risks, problems and potential solutions are freely shared and all the players collaborate to find the best way forward is part of my gold standard.

So onto the next, it’s a big one…

Trust

In 1971 or 1972, my dad came home with a 1962 Beetle for us kids to drive on the farm. He paid £5 and we loved it. Unfortunately, we soon learned how to siphon petrol from his car and that was just one of the unintended consequences for him. My love of the Volkswagen group brands started on that day and continues to this. This picture is the grill of our Touareg which is a magnificent chariot!

However, they’re struggling at the moment as shareholders, employees, dealers, customers and potential customers are reeling at the deception that appears to have been engineered across the world. For many the trust that was built over a lifetime has been destroyed in a puff of sooty exhaust!

If you’re buying any form of transformational service delivered by people, trust is a huge thing. If it isn’t there, between the supplier and the client, then many protections must be put in place. Protections that can have unintended consequences. Protections that can slow things down and create motivation for gaming.

In my experience, trust isn’t a binary thing. It’s not that you trust me or don’t trust me. Rather that you will trust me somewhat. At the beginning a bit. As we get to know each other, then more. After a long period of safely delivered transformations, promises kept and fair play, then we might trust each other a lot.

I also suggest that the absence of trust isn’t distrust. Rather that distrust is something much worse that comes when we’re tricked or let down. Recovering from distrust will be slow and painful.

In our business relationships, when we have higher levels of trust, many things can be simpler. Reporting, controls and change management can be lightweight as a default. That lightness removes inertia and helps us to be quicker when a change of direction is called for. The lightness can reduce dramatically the scope for unintended consequences.

To sum it all up…

Like all of us, I have many ideas and in the course of this blog, I’ve tried to elaborate some that have grown and become valuable to me over the last 30 years or so:

  • When we try to make sure that everyone wins, we generate positivity and sustainable engagements.
  • When we recognise there are few things about which we can be truly certain, it encourages us to implement frequently, reduce the work we have in progress and prepare for change. It makes us stronger.
  • When we understand that increasing complexity increases the likelihood of unintended consequences, we can aim for simplicity and reduce our inertia. We can spend less time avoiding bad things and more time creating an amazing future.
  • To achieve all of the above we must have trust. If there’s distrust, then nothing else matters.
  • When there are high levels of trust, we can achieve remarkable things.

These ideas aren’t quite mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive. Rather they overlap and feed each other. Over the years, I found that I made exponential progress when I went deeper on multiple fronts. If you’d like to discuss how these ideas might help you in your business, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. I will help in any way that I can.

And finally, if you decide to engage with these or any big ideas of your own…

Good luck!

Peter Brookes-Smith, Group Managing Director, Objectivity