‘Things end. It is the way we deal with things ending that matters.’ That’s a line from Analyse This, a film starring Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal. Billy plays a ‘head doctor’ (in mafia speak) who offers these words of well-meaning advice to one of his regular patients after her relationship ends. It reminds me of my least favourite part of strategy talk and collaboration. Any honest strategist will tell you that it is very hard to get clients to think seriously about things that may end. In fact, to focus on this may sound an alarm as the client may start doubting the strategist’s capability and commitment. So the dreaded ‘middle road’ is chosen and strategy talk steers to the real poison for clever strategy: politeness, little risk, and overstated expectations.
That’s one way to earn a living. Another may be to invest in a patient approach and help the client grasp the critical aspect of understanding how collaboration may end and what should be done if it flops.
True collaboration never works unless partners can answer ‘yes’ to a simple question: when all this is done, would I do it again with same collaborator? It is one of the principles of ROADMENDER. The moment the answer starts to look like ‘no’ then you need to look at your strategy – if you have designed one that is!
It is understandable for collaboration to start with hopes, expectations and optimism. But, that is not what collaboration strategy is about. As with any general business policy, it should deal with things across the spectrum; from when things are going swimmingly well to when they are heading towards disaster with the potential for high cost, loss of reputation etc. So how can businesses that decide to enter into a collaborative arrangement deal with it ending? Raising the question of what an exit plan should look like in case the collaboration does not go well should be put into context. Key parties need to be as real about collaboration as they would be with every aspect of their individual functioning.
There is no harm in asking the hard questions, provided they are specific and well explained. Generally speaking, the beginning, or as some may call it the ‘courting’ part of a collaboration relationship may ‘feel’ too good. People, regardless of their good intentions, are prone to judge things with emotions. The promise of a good outcome through collaboration sometimes prevents business managers from imagining a ‘what if’ scenario. Thus the important thing to remember is a simple principle: the best intentions only matter when a sound strategy is in place.