Partnership building

Time to put words into action. Where do you start? How do you build a coalition of like-minded organisations?  This chapter gives some pointers on how to do this. 

This chapter was heavily inspired by the books Team of Teams by Stanley McChrystal and Partnering by Jean Oelwang. We thank Robert Styles, Director of Learning and Engagement at Prosocial World, for his valuable contributions to this chapter.

Resilience in the face of change and complexity

Landscapes are complex systems. This means implicitly that there are lots of moving parts. It is difficult to predict how any change will affect the rest of the system. We also can’t predict exactly what disruptions will happen when and where. These systems are therefore much too complex to be overseen by any one organisation. We need to create resilient systems, where each organisation can scan the system from their own perspective. This enables the system to quickly adapt and recover from destabilisations we can’t predict.

Resilience increases with the diversity and number of players involved. If a disruption affects any one player, the network is strong enough to adapt, so the whole springs back from the disruption. This of course we know from ecology; ecosystems are more stable if there is greater diversity.

In a landscape where many individuals and organisations are active, each has its role to play. Each has a niche with its strengths and specialities. To create resilient landscapes, each of those players operates from their strengths and all work towards a shared goal.

If you want to go fast, travel alone, if you want to go far, travel together

African proverb

A common purpose: a shared vision for the future

Partnerships that last and create impact have a strong mission, an audacious goal that is bigger than the individual organisations that make up the partnership. When partnering, it is always necessary to let go of some of your individualism for a greater shared good. To make the individual partners commit to that sacrifice requires a strong vision that everyone connects to. Every partner needs to believe in the common good or shared vision for the partnership to work.

The shared purpose is the guiding star of the partnership, it is the shared vision for what the partnership is to achieve. Although this can overlap with a future vision for the landscape, they are not necessarily the same thing. The shared purpose is the ‘why’ of the partnership: why we are collaborating, what end the partnership wants to achieve.

This shared vision needs to be clear, concise, easy to communicate, appealing and flexible enough for each partner and stakeholder to find their place within it and run with it in their own way. It is not about what the landscape should look like in detail, more about what qualities it should embody. For example, biodiversity, indigenous self-determination and joy in community are all values you may wish to embody in the landscape, that partners are motivated to promote together. To be authentic, they must feel true to the partners involved. Furthermore, they are not stagnant, but need to morph over time as knowledge and understanding develop.

As a special note: we have found partnerships that arise for the purpose of fundraising can be quite challenging to sustain in the long run. If organisations jointly apply for funding, it is difficult to avoid the primary ‘why’ of the partnership being money. Later, as the collaboration unfolds and we need to adjust activities to ensure we have the impact we want to achieve, partners may lose some work and thus funding, causing friction. That’s why it’s wise to not start with funding but align on values, principles, and content. Then see if and how financial contributions can work.

For more information on how you can develop a shared vision, check out Creating a shared vision for the landscape.

It is not a group of stakeholders coming together to just decide their vision for the landscape but, rather, given all the observations, data, and sensing that they have been looking at and making together, what is the future vision of the landscape that is beginning to emerge through the collective process that they are going through. This can also reduce the tendency towards top-down gestures in this kind of work.

John Stubley, Narrative Designer for awarenesss-based systems change

Bonds of trust

If the shared ‘why’ is the fuel that keeps the partnership going, trust between partners is the oil that lubricates all the moving parts. Trusting each other and knowing you have each other’s backs for the long term is crucial because it gives us freedom and confidence to be more ambitious, to try things, fail and learn forward. Especially when things go wrong, which they inevitably will, strong ‘bonds of trust’ (a term coined in the book Team of Teams by Stanley McChrystal) will help us keep the partnership together and keep it from falling apart.

Forming a strong partnership is not as much about the content as it is about human relationships. The content can change as circumstances change. Human relations are what keep the partnership going. Great teams consist of individuals who have learned to trust each other. Over time, they have discovered each other’s strengths and weaknesses, enabling them to act as a coordinated whole.

Enduring trust is about trusting each other, and about trusting ourselves: trusting that the choices you make will work out. This allows you to be fully present – not be distracted by fears, and take risks you might otherwise not have taken. Trust is something that is built over time; it is slow to build and quick to be lost.

Some helpful keys to building trust are (from the book Partnering by Jean Oelwang):

  • Assume good intentions
  • Create a safe, honest space for trust to grow
  • Be transparent and clear
  • Make difficult conversations the norm
  • Allow mistakes

Holistic understanding and information sharing

Another key requisite for well-functioning partnerships, according to Stanley McChrystal in Team of Teams, is holistic understanding and information sharing. For holistic understanding, every individual needs to have a basic understanding of the whole picture, of what part they play in it, what parts others play in it, and what they are jointly trying to achieve. This way everyone can maximise each team’s unique skill sets. Therefore, careful and conscious attention needs to be paid to how information is to be shared between partners.

Sometimes organisations put up barriers to safeguard information. These need to be softened so sharing can take place. One way of doing that can be to lead by example by disciplined and deliberate sharing of information with new partners in a way that adds value to their operations. The trust built in this way can lead them to decide to return the favour.

The level at which partners make decisions is another way of achieving holistic understanding. If decision-making happens only at a high level and behind closed doors, it can be unclear to the rest of the organisation why certain decisions are made. Feelings of mistrust or competition may gain a foothold. If, however, decisions are discussed openly it can bolster holistic understanding. It indirectly also increases buy-in from all the individuals and increases trust in each other and decision-making.

Sustaining a strong partnership over time

Getting to know your colleagues intimately and acquiring a whole-system overview are big time sinks; the sharing of responsibilities generates redundancies. But this overlap and redundancy – that could be seen as inefficiencies – are precisely what imbues teams with high-level adaptability and efficacy. In other words: we must realise that we will need to invest time into the partnership. Once the partnership is off to a good start, this investment does not stop.

Stay the course

Holistic landscape restoration will take a long time. In the 4 returns framework, we say that 20 years is the bare minimum amount of time needed to achieve large-scale and lasting change. This means we are in it for the long run. There will be times when we face difficulties and times when the relationship is strained. Those are times when we need to support each other. Knowing you have each other’s backs makes it possible for individual members of the partnership to take risks they may not have taken if they were by themselves because they know they have a safe space to fall back to.

It helps to spend time making explicit and understanding each other’s realities and finding ways to navigate those different realities and ways of working. Celebrating rather than hiding differences, because differences offer opportunities for opening up other perspectives and stretching beyond your comfort zone. This takes patience, commitment, courage, and creative approaches to conflict.

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation


It can therefore be worthwhile consciously investing in rituals or traditions in your partnership. Some tips from Partnering, Jean Oelwang:

  • Respect individuality – give everyone an equal chance for expression and leave room for healthy disagreement. Compromise even on where you meet to help everyone feel safe, comfortable, and open.
  • Share ownership – let everyone work together to create magnetic moments rather than force them on them. Every partner should feel a sense of ownership and belonging.
  • Consistency is key – when magnetic moments happen regularly, they help deepen the connection and identify potential conflicts in the relationship before they’ve had a chance to grow to an unmanageable size
  • Ensure breadth – to get the most from magnetic moments, incorporate joy and play, curiosity and wonder, honest communication, and community.
  • Always evolve – magnetic moments are never fixed; they evolve as the connection develops. The conscious effort that creates successful results at the start of your partnership may evolve into the way things are done. You will need to spark new life into practices by introducing an innovative twist

Celebrate friction

With diverse perspectives, friction and differing views and opinions are inevitable. How we deal with friction determines whether it has a positive or negative outcome on our relationships. We need to celebrate friction, take the heat out of conflict, and turn it into a learning opportunity. Without friction, there is no shine.

We are happy each time we disagree because we know we’re going to learn something new; it’s going to make some sparkles

Bertrand Piccard, co-founder of Solar Impulse

Assume good intentions and don’t make it personal. Here’s some tips from Partnering, Jean Oelwang:

  • Understand why – the best way to defuse conflict starts with empathetic listening; trying to understand someone’s perspective, rather than trying to prove yours. Thinking “what if the other person is right?” can help embrace other ideas, even if you don’t fully shift your perspective to the other person. It helps you open your mind to other possibilities
  • A third way – celebrating two apparently opposing/differing ideas by realising there probably is a third way that we haven’t thought of yet. The third way takes the best of both ideas and shapes them into a third, better idea.
  • Veto power – thinking through ‘correction mechanisms’ that help safeguard the relationship from blowing up in moments of exhaustion, or when you’re so passionate you can’t see straight, can help. An example can be to introduce a veto mechanism; where each partner has the opportunity to use a veto if there is something they really couldn’t live with.
  • Humour – a moment of laughter, a self-deprecating joke, or a silly prank can bring lightness and joy to difficult situations and remind us not to take ourselves too seriously.
  • The other 99 things – when something about your partner frustrates you, remember all the other things that you like about them. Nobody’s perfect. Stay away from language like ‘you always do this’ or ‘you never do that’. As Mandela said: “resentment is like drinking poison, and then hoping it will kill your enemies”. Sometimes one of the partners will need to make a sacrifice in the short run for the partnership to flourish in the long run
  • Pick up the phone. Written communications through media such as WhatsApp or email make it much more difficult to tune into each other through small gestures, tone of voice, et cetera. Misunderstandings and miscommunication can happen quickly through written messages, especially if we’re under time pressure or stress. If an email exchange leads to friction, pick up the phone or go see each other instead.

Conflict often comes from different views on strategy – different views on the best way to get to the goal – rather than from a difference in core values. To resolve conflict, it is therefore important to park the conflict and spend time to listen to each other’s core values. Theory U offers valuable tools to practice deep listening. Once you find alignment there, you can redesign the ‘how’ in a way that takes the values of all players into account.

Partnering at scale

Over time scaling our impact and our work will require us to expand partnerships beyond core groups, beyond the partners we originally started working with. Extending the same sense of partnership to a large group of actors that we may never interact with personally can seem extremely difficult. Below are some design principles to keep in mind for large collaborations.

  • First of all, the need for a shared purpose is even more important – you need a central shared purpose that is both extremely clear and extremely captivating. The same principles hold (it needs to be flexible, not too precise, able to evolve, et cetera) as before.
  • Think big, start small, and act now – sometimes the issues seem too big to face. Focus on getting started, follow the energy, define achievable goals and milestones along the way – and celebrate them when you reach them – to keep the momentum up. If the mission is important enough and relations strong enough, others will soon follow to join you.
  • Opening up – Exclusivity is a killer for collaborations. Although you may start with a small selection of stakeholders, keep extending the invitation to join. The open invitation needs to encourage thoughtful ‘recruitment’ of people from diverse backgrounds, not just on their technical skills but also on the social capital they bring.
  • Team of teams – In his book, Team of teams, Stanley McChrystal argues that partnerships can be structured as if they were a team consisting of teams rather than a team consisting of individuals. In a team of teams, every individual does not have to have a relationship with every other individual involved in the partnership, everyone just needs to know someone on every team, so that when they think about or have to work with another unit, they envision a friendly face rather than a competitive rival.
  • Distributed leadership – success in such complex collaborations lies in distributed leadership and empowered decision-making across networks. This means that there is no central coordination, but rather decision making is organised at the ‘lowest’ possible level i.e., as close to the action as possible.

Formalising partnerships

Partnerships often start as loose structures. Sometimes, there may be a need to formalise the partnership in some way. In this section, we provide some inspiration that might help in this process.

Governance and governance structures

It is important to think well and be clear about roles and responsibilities in a partnership. ProSocial World shares eight principles for good civic behaviour based on the prize-winning work of Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom.

These are proven principles that support a strong and productive team. You’re encouraged to tailor them to your context. The aim is to foster a positive work environment that boosts effectiveness.

  1. Shared identity and purpose – We work together as a group to protect and preserve life.
  2. Equitable distribution of contributions and benefits – We use the resources available to meet everyone’s needs fairly and ensure that the benefits are shared fairly.
  3. Fair and inclusive decision-making – We involve everyone affected by our actions in the decision-making process.
  4. Monitoring agreed-upon behaviors – We have systems in place to observe and learn from the effects of our actions and choices.
  5. Evolutionary responses to helpful and unhelpful behaviors – We learn from our experiences and strive to improve our ability to fulfill our responsibilities and achieve our goals.
  6. Restorative approaches to conflict resolution – We focus on resolving conflicts through restorative justice principles rather than relying solely on punishment.
  7. Authority to self-govern – We have the freedom to make our own choices and decisions within our group.
  8. Collaborative relations with other groups – We work together with other groups that share the same principles, allowing us to sustainably use resources on a larger scale.

Creating a governance structure for the partnership is a crucial step in formalising the partnership. When designing a governance structure, it is important to not only pay attention to what every member will do but also to what they will not do. Sometimes being explicit about what you will not do can be more clarifying where responsibilities stop than saying only what you will do. Jointly making and agreeing on a RASCI (Responsible, Accountable, Supportive, Consulted, Informed) matrix can be a great way to lay the basis for the governance structure.

It can be advisable to keep the governance structure as simple as possible given the circumstances. If you don’t feel drawn to designing a governance structure, be aware that one will operate subconsciously. Being conscious of it means you can make clearer agreements and have points of reference in the case of disagreements.

Contracts and agreements

The agreed governance structure is useful as a reference document, in case of e.g., staff changes or to review after collaborating for some time. The types of documents used, and the legal status of any documents can vary from country to country, but some of the most common ones are:

  • Partnership charter or Letter of Intent – a document outlining the partnership, not legally binding
  • Memorandum of Understanding – an agreement between different parties outlining the will to follow a joint line of action. More formal than the letter of intent, not legally binding
  • Collaboration agreement – a legally binding agreement between different parties outlining the details and agreements of a collaboration

As with the shared purpose, the governance structure should also evolve. It is good practice to review the agreements from time to time to see if they can be improved given changed circumstances.

Role of leaders in a partnership

Leadership in the kind of partnerships that we need to build is fundamentally different from leadership in the command structures that characterise many organisations to this day. Leaders should not be chess players, trying to keep the overview and sending commands to all their subordinates. They should be gardeners who perform vigilant maintenance of information sharing and relationships so that the conditions are right for the work to come to fruition. They are caretakers of the shared purpose, architects for information sharing and trust building processes between the different team members. They need to cultivate a culture that rewards individual initiative and critical thinking and nurture the decision-making capacity of their teams.

Further reading

Was this chapter useful to you? What have you learned in your partnerships? Let us know in the comments!

This chapter has been written by Bas van Dijk, in cooperation with various Commonland colleagues.

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Sharing an understanding of the landscape

Every landscape has its unique history and state, including a.o. its people, politics, economy. ecology, and climate. This module will teach you how to investigate and understand this context with a landscape and stakeholder analysis.  Cover photo by The Way Between ...
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Creating a shared vision for the landscape

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