Consider Test Driving Your Partnership
If you've ever been tempted to erupt into an obscene tirade befitting a Teamster with Tourette's Syndrome because your business partner (be it an agency, consultant, service provider or supplier) missed yet another commitment, then it is proper to have misgivings about the relationship. Could these episodes have been predicted? Based on experience, I've found that it can be a good idea to "test drive" a collaboration before becoming more professionally intimate with a business partner.
When the stakes are relatively low and the deliverables are fairly routine, this may not be necessary. However, when considering entry into a collaborative relationship involving high priority programs with high risk, it is sensible for the participants to size each other up to gauge their compatibility.
Of course, everyone is usually on their best behavior during the "courtship" period, or when projects proceed uneventfully. It's when things become stressful, such as when a project faces unforeseen complications, or during deal making that less desirable personal characteristics can come to the fore and create problems. Unfortunately, as one might expect, these are the least opportune times for a relationship to be thrown into flux, because they carry the greatest risk to the project at hand.
I've ended business relationships because I simply couldn't endure the stress that certain partners were causing me. Call me persnickety, but I don't think it's too much to ask for partners to consistently do as they promise, on time, and completely.
A professional colleague once told me that the most critical factor for her that decides whether she should enter into a business relationship with another party is their mutual compatibility. This, more than the substance of the value that can potentially be exchanged through the relationship. This doesn't mean that the parties must be best buddies or want to socialize together. It does mean that they should have similar values: such as honesty, fairness, risk sharing, providing support and trustworthiness. We can learn about our mutual compatibility during test engagements.
One shouldn't assume that it is always that a larger party (e.g. large corporation) that should learn whether a smaller party (e.g. consultant, service provider) is "worthy" of their business. It can be the smaller party should decide (for example) whether or not they can deal with the larger party's bureaucratic style, or similar. For the same reason, it can be completely reasonable for either party to check business references. Is Big Co easy to work with? Do they respond promptly and constructively to issues that crop up? Are they reliable?
Good business relationships are valuable and require commitment from all parties to nurture and sustain them. If we do the necessary up front work to help ensure "fit", we stand a much better chance of collectively realizing the benefits that can come from such collaborations.
Last week ("Diving for Pearls in the Innovation Pool"), I discussed the importance of enabling externally-facing companies to create internal mechanisms to evaluate submissions that may not strictly fit defined Marketing Needs. Kevin McFarthing of Innovation Fixer wrote in response that companies need "R&D people with imagination to look for solutions, not (just) match potential solutions against specifications. They should also (take the initiative and) be prepared to "pitch" new discoveries to their Marketing colleagues." I support Kevin's points, particularly, his point about pitching. In order for any of these concepts to develop any kind of interest or traction, it is vital that the (R&D) messenger pitch them with a level of ownership and passion. After all, if the messenger doesn't have energy for them, why should they?