Is Cultural Matching the missing ingredient in collaboration?

I was recently brought in to help a partnership where the honeymoon period was well and truly over and it was proving hard to achieve all that looked possible while “courting”.  Some things were going well but there was still a lot more to be gained.  We certainly helped, but some hard thinking and honest evaluation earlier in the partnership could have avoided a lot of anguish.   Sometimes we are involved in the early stages, facilitating the initial joint discussions, however the real work of making collaboration work starts even before this.

You need to be asking two critical questions before any formal discussions:

  1. Is Collaboration the right answer?
  2. Are these really the right partners?

I’ll address alternatives to collaboration later.  So dealing with the second point: choosing the right partners can be very difficult.  The numbers seem right and the opportunity is clear so what can go wrong?  Resources, Shared objectives, Governance and Leadership all matter a great deal but not considering the impact of different cultures is one of the most common mistakes.

Differing organisational cultures (fundamentally the way things are done) can be big barriers to a successful partnership. It is very easy to trust “it will all work out” but once the unwritten rules that make up a culture come into play it is very easy to start to misunderstand or even doubt each other.  This then impacts on your mutual trust the cornerstone of good collaboration.

Once you are committed, changing the culture of either partner is very difficult, if not impossible. So before you reach that stage you need to be asking – “Can these cultures work together to deliver value for both of us?”

This is a really challenging question to answer involving unquantifiable cultures, sub-cultures, artefacts and layers.  The temptation is to ignore these challenging “soft” issues especially while caught up in resolving the other easier “hard” issues but doing so can put your whole project at risk from day one.

Initiated, designed and delivered  professionally, genuine collaborative working can offer both partners many advantages.  In fact, in the current economic environment collaboration can be the only way for organisations to thrive (or even survive).

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