In an alliance project between two companies?

Need to succeed, together?

Want to make it work?

Here, red10 ‘s Will Sudworth suggests the habits that increase the chances of Alliance success.

Magic or Misery

There will be an important reason that the alliance was formed. Alliances require a lot of work to set-up: commercial agreements, legal agreements, strategic fit discussions.

In red10 , most of the alliances we help are two or more pharmaceutical companies collaborating to bring a new medicine to patients. There will be one or more reasons why teams from both Pharma are “better together”.

Given that alliances are not entered into lightly, our experience is that alliances are either a magical experience…or misery.

Magical: because the whole really is more than the sum of the parts. Because it is so powerful to have two companies, standing shoulder to shoulder, making a dent in the universe.

Misery: because if you don’t get the secret sauce in place then alliances seem to bring out the worst in us as humans…distrust, demonisation and passive aggression or worse.

Having had the privilege to work with many Alliances, we’d like to suggest five habits that – when adopted – increase the chances of the magic happening and the misery disappearing.

A quick note: whilst this article is targeted at alliances between two companies, these habits seem to apply just as much to alliances between two departments in the same company.

Habit #1: Powerful Pairs

We start with this habit deliberately. In our experience this is make or break for the alliance.

The chances are that the alliance will set-up pairs of roles to work with each other across the alliance. There’ll be an Alliance Manager from both companies, a Project Leader in both, a Project Manager in both, a Clinical Lead in both, etc..

If these pairs choose to develop the strongest relationship possible, then together they can help the entire alliance navigate both companies, the science and the outside world.

If these pairs don’t have a strong relationship, then they will be ripped apart instead of facing challenges head-on, together.

What could rip the pair apart?

Let’s take one example: finances. Let’s say that one company invests and the other is hesitant. A strong pair will work together to influence both companies and solve the problem just like they would fix a scientific challenge. In a weak pair, rather than working together they will descend into criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt.

Criticism: one leader will accuse the other of breaking not just the contract but their promise

Defensiveness: the other leader will feel the need to defend their company’s position rather than look at it objectively

Stonewalling: that same other leader might then choose to stop answering emails and start avoiding conversations

Contempt: there can come a point where the pair hate each other, speaking badly of each other and each other’s companies.

In the best alliances, the pairs invest heavily in their relationships.

Key, in the best alliances, are two pairs stronger than all the rest:

  • The Alliance Managers – acting like nurturing parents who encourage the health of the alliance to be healthy, urge the other pairs to work well, remind all the pairs of the compelling reason that the two companies paired up in the first place.
  • The Project Managers – detaching from taking anything personally to look at everything objectively with curiosity and thereby helping all the other pairs to navigate brilliantly, from navigating governance bodies and differing scientific opinions to navigating IT systems and everything in-between.

What about the other pairs, aren’t they key, especially the Project Leaders?

Yes. Every pair matters. Yet our experience is that the above two pairs are the foundation. Get these two pairs right and it increases the chances for the alliance succeeding.

Habit #2: Win:Win for Project LLC

Do alliance members identify most with their company or with the project?

In the best alliances we’ve seen, teams choose to believe that their alliance is a company in its own right and act that way. They use a phrase like “what’s best for Project LLC?” rather than using the names of the two companies.

This helps them detach from their company’s position and objectively look for the way to navigate both companies, the science and the outside world for the win:win for their project

What do we mean by Win:Win?

I love soccer. In the UK leagues, a draw only gets 1 point whilst a win gets 3 points, so anything but a win is losing much-needed points. A draw is a lose:lose. A win is win:lose. There is no way to get a win:win in soccer.

Alliances are not soccer. It really is possible to get a win:win. That’s exactly why the two companies established the alliance in the first place, commercially and legally.

How do you get to a win:win?

It needs each partner to be willing to go beyond company positions and share company interests. There’s a lot packed into that last sentence so let’s unpack. A position is where you make a proposal. An interest is where you share, transparently (see #3 below) what the needs are that led you to that proposal, in such a way that you can be open to any proposal that meets those needs.

This requires pairs to have the communication skills that enable them to hold dialogues that dig deep to build understanding of each other’s interests and assumptions that then allow the pair to build win:win solutions.

Some alliances we work with ask red10 to train every alliance member in Rackham’s Communicating Behaviours to help them to hold these dialogues

Habit #3: Transparency Builds Trust

Are alliance members saying it like it is, in a timely way?

Or are you finding out important facts later than is helpful, and through other channels? Or worse, are you discovering that the facts weren’t what you thought?

Transparency builds trust.

The more you’re able to be open and honest, the more you’re able to fix things, together.

This means having crucial conversations and giving feedback to each other. Want a way to feed-forward in a good way? Try our approaches here.

Habit #4 – Assume Generous Reason & State Positive Intent

In his research into relationships, Professor Gottman could predict with 91% accuracy whether a partnership would last, having only watched them talking for 15 mins.

How could he be so accurate in his predictions?

By counting how often they criticised, were defensive, stonewalled or showed contempt.

And also counting how often they assumed the most generous explanation for events.

If generosity of spirit outweighed what he named as the four horses of the apocalypse, then the chances are that the relationship would flourish.

E.g. if your alliance partner invited some other people to the meeting when you’d agreed a limited set of names? There must be a good reason, they wouldn’t just do that otherwise. I’ll assume positive intent, and ask them out of curiosity when I get chance to.

E,g, if your partner made a unilateral decision when we would normally decide together? There must be a good reason, I trust them. I just need to find out why.

In the late Stephen Covey’s “7 habits of highly effective people” classic, he promotes “Assume good intent”. Here we go further – don’t just assume good intent, state your positive intent too, out loud, so others hear it. It helps you check that you really are doing things for the win:win, too (see earlier habit #2)

Habit #5: Team Effectiveness 9-Dimension Drumbeat

Last yet not least – alliance project teams are “teams”. They need investment in their team effectiveness.

What do the best teams do?

They agree to act like a spider’s web rather than a hub-and-spoke.

They put in place a Team GPS by co-creating and launching the satellites that guide them. With the core satellites being agreements on Vision, Strategic Priorities and Ways of Working supported by knowing each other and the environment well. Some alliances ask red10 to use facilitation approaches like 3-chair challenge to help them align on the vision, or controlled clusters to help them align on Strategic Priorities.

They have a heartbeat to meeting regularly, sharing what they’ve learnt and trusting each other on the next steps till they next meet.

How is your alliance doing?

Why not ask red10 to share our habits of highly effective alliances, and take the temperature of your alliance and help you fine-tune?