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How can value continue to be created over the long term?

By Todd Kirkbride & Ian Dixon

Numerous new crisis collaborations are helping provide immediate solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of these partnerships will be explicitly temporary, designed to do a specific job in the particular context of COVID-19. Now that we are beginning to come out of the immediate crisis, could some of these new relationships develop into longer-term partnerships to tackle future challenges? 

Transitioning from a ‘crisis collaboration’ to a long-term partnership may be possible provided partners undertake a proper review and assessment of the options available.  The ‘Six Questions for Transition’ highlighted in this article, provide a simple guide for all types of organizations (including business, NGO, academia, and government) to determine the potential and process for continuing or even scaling relationships forged under extreme pressure to deliver even greater impact in a post-COVID world.

It is ironic that during this time where isolation and social distancing can mean the difference between life and death, it is more critical now than almost any other time in recent history, that organizations around the world work together more collaboratively. The historic situation of COVID-19 is causing hardships at every level of society and the economy, revealing the absolute interconnectedness of countless industries from national health systems to global supply chains.

Fortunately, from such crises rise great leaders who have jumped into action, often at their own personal risk, to do their part in tackling the spread of this virus and minimizing its long-term impact within their organizations, communities and society. This urgency to solve emerging problems, through any means necessary, is forging unprecedented innovation, creativity and collaboration among businesses, NGOs, academia, faith-based organizations, and government that may have never worked together before. Numerous successful crisis collaborations are helping provide critical solutions to address immediate needs. Many of these may be temporary arrangements where there is no need or interest for the partnership to continue. In other cases, these relationships may be able to transition into longer-term partnerships that could tackle other critical economic, social and environmental challenges, such as climate change.

One example of an effective crisis collaboration between businesses, academia and government occurred in the UK, in response to the public sectors’ call for assistance to rapidly produce additional respiratory devices. Seven UK-based Formula 1 racing teams established ‘Project Pitlane’. One part of the project involved harnessing the expertise of their respective technology arms and to work hand-in-hand with University College London (UCL) medical teams to successfully reverse engineer a breathing aid in under 100 hours.  Subsequently, fast-tracked approval by UK’s Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has led the British government to order 10,000 of the devices which are being produced “at a rate of up to 1,000 a day” in the Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains technology center. While this is an excellent example of a partnership combining complementary expertise, with each organization playing a critical role ensuring overall success, is it just a temporary arrangement to solve an immediate need or could it transition into a different type of partnership with a new objective?

In the US, Bayer (a pharmaceutical company) has joined forces with two non-profits, Direct Relief and Feed America, to distribute 1,000,000 Health and Wellness products to support the health of at-risk communities. The company’s donation of products, including over-the-counter medications and multivitamins, will be delivered directly to Americans who cannot easily access them today by leveraging the expertise and existing distribution channels of Direct Relief and Feeding America. This crisis collaboration between a large multinational and several civil society organizations is servicing an immediate need but does it have potential to transform into a long term partnering arrangement that could provide an ongoing mutual benefit?

Emerging patterns of crisis collaboration

If we look more closely at why these various types of collaborations are taking place, we can start to see some common factors emerging. There is:

  • A clear purpose for partnering. The overriding threat of the COVID-19 virus is galvanizing people together in new combinations. Whether it be to produce new equipment that is in short supply, develop new vaccines, make changes to legislation or to provide programs to support those financially or socially disadvantaged through this crisis. Whatever it is, there are some very clear and distinct problems that directly affect everyone, and which no one organization or sector can address by itself.
  • A critical time imperative. With the threat of exponential growth in COVID-19 cases globally and the pressure it is having on health systems and economies, time is of the essence. Everyone has to act quickly to try and stay ahead of the virus or suffer very direct impacts in numbers of cases and deaths within their country. Daily reporting of COVID-19 statistics is only heightening the anxiety around this crisis and feeding this time imperative.
  • A focus on interests and needs, not positions. Ideologies are being put to one side as everyone is focusing on a higher goal of preservation of health. Previous positional stances on everything from industrial relations to how to support our economies in shut-down mode are being revisited. As our earlier examples showed, we are even seeing companies operate in completely new fields and repurposing production lines in an effort to fill an urgent need.
  • Recognition that it is not about the individual but the collective. There has been clear recognition that we are all in this together and we will need to work together to survive. This crisis has brought this point into sharp focus with a growing recognition that post COVID-19, we will need to work together differently to create a sustainable future.
  • Permission to partner. The sense of urgency is breaking down barriers to partnering that may have existed before the crisis, such as lengthy decision-making processes and evaluation of numerous alternatives with multiple cost benefit assessments. The time imperative has meant that when a clear need is recognized, egos and power are left at the door and decisions are being made in the interests of all.

Partnering in a post-COVID world

While these patterns have emerged among crisis collaborations that are forming now, a lot of uncertainty persists about what will happen to the partnerships when the crisis subsides. In many cases, the immediate need will have been satisfied and value from the relationship achieved. There may be no apparent need for the partnering relationship to continue and it may therefore cease at a defined time. In other situations, there could well be opportunities for the partners to continue to work together to create ongoing added value.

In order to make this transition, partners will need to embark on some form of assessment asking key questions to inform their decision-making and enable them to explore the possibilities that could arise from long-term partnering.

Six questions for transition

The questions suggested below are appropriate for all types of organisations that have entered into crisis collaborations and are now thinking about ‘where to go from here’. By reflecting on these points, partners will be able to gain some insights to guide their partnering direction.

1) Is there still an alignment of interest between the partners?

Just because the initial collaboration proved successful in accomplishing joint goals does not mean there would necessarily be ongoing alignment and overlap of interest between the organizations to continue with the partnership. In the context of a crisis, organizations’ interests widen considerably around the common, public good and it is this overlap of interest that creates the potential for partnership, and why ordinarily very different organizations might partner during emergencies. Outside of the crisis, it is a completely different context and there may be no ongoing mutual interest, and therefore no potential for partnership. In the case of the Formula 1 team – fierce competitors in normal times – without the shared public interest, there may be no basis for continued collaboration.

Partnerships should be demand-led: i.e. they respond to a need to more effectively deliver on all partner organizations’ strategic objectives. Depending on the type of organization, this would need to align with, among others, their profit motives, social impact goals, mission statement, public mandate, and policy objectives. And so even though organizations such as the Formula 1 team, UCL, Bayer, Direct Relief and Feed America have established new productive relationships in response to COVID-19, each one still needs to determine whether or not there is a strategic demand to transition to a long-term partnership.

2) What have we learned from our crisis collaboration?

In order to determine whether to transition, a clear understanding of what happened during the crisis collaboration is key. Reflecting on just how the partnership came about, what were the key drivers for partnering and how it worked in practice are all critical in learning as much as possible from the initial phase. Why this is so important is that some of the building blocks that would normally be put in place in a partnering arrangement may have been cut short due to the speed of initiation.

How well did we work together? What was the level of trust and transparency between partners? What were some of the organizational cultural differences? How closely did our values align? In a crisis, people are prepared to let issues slide as the pressure is on to deliver an immediate outcome. However, when the crisis is over and the time imperative goes away, some of these issues can surface and destabilize the partnership. Moving forward from this experience, the partnership needs to reflect on the level confidence each organization has to partner effectively outside of crisis times.

3)  Is partnering still the right approach?

For partnership still to be valid, all parties will need to feel confident that by working together, they will be able to deliver significantly more than by working independently. As with any decision, there are trade-offs that must outweigh the cost and benefits for pursuing other options (going it alone, contracting services, etc.). Not only should the partnership be designed to maximize value for each organization, but the additional impact achieved must be worth the extra time, effort, resources (and frustrations) sometimes associated with a partnering approach.

One way of determining whether the transaction costs of partnering are ‘worth it’ is to collectively identify the added value the partnership will set out to achieve. TPI, with World Vision, has produced a 10 point Collaborate Advantage Framework to assist organizations in assessing potential partnership benefits. The detailed tool is available here, setting out the key areas of potential collaborative advantage, namely:

  1. Bringing together essential complementary resources
  2. Creating collective legitimacy and knowledge
  3. Combining diverse resources, thinking, approaches
  4. Collectively providing sufficient weight of action
  5. Convening holistic range of actors across traditional silos
  6. Creating a mechanism for collective learning and capability-building
  7. Collectively sharing risk of major investments / implementation
  8. Aligning programs / resources, sharing resources and cooperating to exploit synergies
  9. Combining delivery capacity across geographies
  10. Networking, connecting, building relationships

In both example partnerships, clearly multiple boxes were ticked during the crisis. In both cases: bringing together essential complementary (and diverse) resources to create a whole solution (e.g. Formula 1’s design and manufacturing capability with UCL’s medical expertise); and, additionally, in the case of Bayer / Direct Relief and Feed America, combining delivery capacity across geographies. To continue partnering, partners would need to be clear that combining resources would continue to create significant added value for all, and which would be worth the extra time, effort, resources (and frustrations) sometimes associated with a partnering approach.

4) What kind of ‘relationship’ should be developed through the partnership?

For any organization looking to transition from crisis collaboration to a successful long-term partnership post COVID-19, it is important for them to identify the ‘type of relationship’ they would like to form. Insights gained by The Partnering Initiative (TPI) from two decades of advising organizations worldwide in how to form multi-sector partnerships, show that these relationships can range on a spectrum from transactional to transformational as shown in the diagram below.

The Partnership Spectrum

The Partnership Spectrum

If we look at the earlier examples, we can see that Bayer working with Direct Relief and Feed America in donating resources is an example of a Level 1 type relationship, while the Project Pitlane consortium is an excellent example of a Level 2 type relationship combining complementary expertise and resources to innovate.

Being clear about what ‘type of relationship’ you are in provides a solid baseline to work from in considering any new direction for the relationship, that is, to define what type of partnership you have created and/or would like to develop.  In the Formula 1/UCL example, great success was achieved at break-neck speed because of the unique combination of expertise coming from complementary organizations. The Project Pitlane coalition could continue to serve as a partnership that integrates diverse organizations to tackle future challenges. Similarly, Bayer could accept their collaboration as a onetime philanthropic transaction, or they could explore how they could expand the relationships in the long-term to provide access to new distribution channels and co-develop mutually beneficial community social impact programs that improve the health and well- being of (current and new) customers.

5) Who should be involved?

As the scope of many crisis collaborations appear specific and immediate Revisiting longer-term objectives requires partners to first inquire whether they have the right partners at the table and then if additional organizations might be needed to help fill missing gaps. Conducting a Stakeholder Mapping, as detailed in this TPI tool, will help the current partners identify additional parties whose interests are affected by or whose actions impact the issues they are hoping to address and may possess resources (financial, influence, expertise) needed for achieving their new goals. In this way, the right partners can be selected to deliver on the need, opportunity or challenge at hand.

As Project Pitlane already includes a consortium of Formula 1 teams, a partnership could continue without the original members but rather leverage the platform to access additional resources that may come from new Universities (or departments), other private sector or civil society organizations that could help deliver greater impact. If Bayer wants to expand distribution of their products beyond the reach that Direct Relief and Feed America provide or maybe the NGOs would benefit from including additional health and wellness products produced by other manufacturers, this systematic approach helps identify other interested / interesting parties and begins to help to distinguish the roles each of these might play in relation to a new partnership project.

6) How should the partners work together in the future?

In a crisis collaboration everyone is focused on the critical tasks that need to be delivered. Working arrangements between the partners are likely to evolve rapidly with task teams established to drive the actions needed. Any collaborative management processes will be developed as needed and may depend on whether or not there were any existing arrangements in place prior to the crisis.

Whatever the situation for how the partnering was managed during the crisis, it is unlikely to be suited for a long-term arrangement. Partners will need to determine what governance and management processes need to be in place to not only manage the transition but to enable long-term sustainability. A crucial element to this is considering how any long-term partnering arrangement could become part of core business and not be an ‘add-on’, as may have been the case during the crisis.

Key areas such as roles and responsibilities, communication and decision making will need to be reviewed, agreed upon and a partnering agreement developed as a foundation for the new partnering arrangement.

In Summary

Transitioning from a crisis collaboration to a long-term partnership that delivers ongoing value may be possible provided partners undertake a proper review and assessment of the options available.  By addressing the ‘six questions for transition’ outlined above, partners will have a simple guide to what may be possible. If the partners believe that a transition is feasible and can continue to add value, then they will need to set about designing how the partnership will look, who will be involved and how it will operate.

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Julia Gilbert

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