Stuart Reid: The Paradox of Partnership – Overcoming Cultural Difference

By Stuart Reid, Board Trustee, The Partnering Initiative

At the heart of every partnership lies a paradox, an inherent contradiction that cannot be ignored in the process of building a successful collaboration. A primary goal of cross-sector partnership is to bring together organisations with different but complementary attributes and to achieve something together that neither organisation can achieve independently.  That is what most proponents of partnership see as its vital added value: it is precisely the difference between the organisations’ resources, skills and mindset that will create a productive synergy. Yet, that difference is also what produces a lack of familiarity and comfort as diverse organisational cultures strive to work together. Even if two organisations share important goals and commitment they might have ways of working which are very different. The paradox of partnership is that what makes an organisation attractive as a partner can also make it more difficult to partner with.

We can see this paradox taking effect right from the outset of a collaboration.  When two or more organisations from different sectors instigate a new partnership, there will inevitably be a need for each organisation to adjust – to some degree – to the working practices of their new partner.  Flexibility of thought and action will be needed if cultural difference is to be successfully managed.  But flexibility should not be interpreted as a willingness to change the essence of the organisation – to “bend over backwards” to accommodate your partner’s way of working. So here again there is a paradox:   If an organisation changes too much then it risks losing the distinctive characteristics that make it attractive to other partners.

There is a useful analogy to this paradox in the field of linguistics. Students of language use a concept called “adaptation” to describe the process by which an individual modifies their language and behaviour to try and establish rapport with someone from a different culture. Research has shown that while too little adaptation to the style of the other person will hamper communication, too much adaptation will also create a negative impression: successful adaptation means not being rigid - being able to be flexible when this is necessary - yet not over-adapting by actually taking on the values and characteristics of your counterpart.  In the same way, overcoming the paradox of partnership means demonstrating openness and flexibility while clearly maintaining your own core values.

So, in building an effective partnership, participants have to identify the core strengths of their own organisation and how those strengths can be harnessed in partnership with others. The central paradox of partnership creates the necessity both to acknowledge cultural difference and to better understand your own operating culture. In addressing these challenges it is important to remember that cultural differences, although they may generate problems, are also sources of solutions: diversity can stimulate innovation. Building a partnership is a learning process and it is often in the cultural gaps between organisations that the greatest learning is done.

One practical response has been the creation of a working culture which is distinct from the normal culture of either partner organisations. This is the concept of a “third” or “hybrid” culture, a working culture developed between partners that is a fusion of the organisations’ styles and enables partners to operate together without some of the constraints of their traditional working practices. Sometimes such a third culture has emerged naturally from the process of co-operation; at other times it has been consciously crafted in order to accommodate collaboration.

There is an obvious advantage to establishing a new set of rules and procedures which all partners can accept: it allows them to generate a unique and productive style of collaborative working. It also offers an alternative strategy when changing procedures in the parent organisation represents too great a challenge. Resources can be better focused on building an effective working culture within the partnership itself. Over time, a successful partnership will serve as a model for future collaborations and a source of useful learning, which may then begin to have an impact on the culture of the parent organisation itself.

Contemporary technology can facilitate such a hybrid culture approach through the potential to establish file sharing, discussion fora and on-line conferencing: partners can explore their capacity and enthusiasm for a range of procedures and tailor a working environment that suits the partnership as a whole.

To overcome the basic paradox of partnership, then, the value an organisation brings to a collaboration needs to be clear and strongly maintained yet it mustn’t be encased in a rigid set of working procedures. It must always be possible to exercise flexibility, to learn from experience and to discover new ways of working together which maximise the chance of success in a particular venture. 

Editor's Note:

In collaboration with WFP, TPI has recently published the second in its ‘Navigator’ toolbook series: The Partnership Culture Navigator. The toolbook has been designed as a practical guide to help users navigate the challenges of dealing with different organisational cultures when working in cross-sector partnerships. Read more here.

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