Partnerships -- When and why

We have all been there. The draft RFP is out or we see that juicy contract is expiring in 6 months and we know we could grab that work. But we have this nagging feeling that we could be more competitive if we team up with someone. Other times we are the incumbent and feel a little uneasy about our chances because of a weakness.

I have been doing a lot of thinking the last few weeks about partnerships because I am getting ready to give a half-day training on the subject at Virginia PTAP. I am reminded that the decision to form a strategic partnership to pursue an opportunity is complex. Partnerships come with trade-offs between autonomy and presenting the strongest team. There are lots of angles to cover, but three upsides and three downsides stand out for me. First the up-sides

1. A partnership can provide access to a new office or contract mechanism. How many times have we seen work that we cannot access because of a lack of client intimacy or because we are not on the right mechanism? Going into a new office or agency is a steep challenge at best and can be a waste of precious development resources if you don’t know the lay of the land. The right partnership can increase your probability of success.

2. Spread out the workload. Mounting a large response may stretch your team thin threatening their ability maintain quality delivery while it weakens your ability to produce a quality offer. Teaming offers a few more hands at the same time you get an injection of different ideas from another firm.

3. Get needed past performance/staff expertise. I know you have read up on digital marketing and your nephew has 12,000 followers on his Twitter feed so surely you can make the case that you can do the dissemination task. The truth is that many times we don’t know what we don’t know and the client will see through all our flowery languages about cutting edge methodologies and nail us for our ignorance. Someone at your firm needs to fearlessly evaluate what you do well and do not so you can shore up your weaknesses.

On the other hand, partnerships come with drawbacks...

1. We lose workshare. The senior leadership team invariably hates to “give away” a piece of the pie -- even those parts of the SOW that are a stretch for the company. After all, they surmise, how will we grow the company if we don’t take chances and expand our core capabilities? The answer to that question is would you rather have 60% of something or zero percent because you did not submit a strong enough response?

2. Working with another firm is just more hassle. Honestly all these phone calls and meetings and working with strangers is one big drag. We think we are smart people who can just figure out what we need and get it done more efficiently. Deciding to partner means you have to be humble enough to admit you need the help of someone else to win and that they can teach you something new.

3. We lose control. Yep you don’t get to be king of the proposal when you have to deal with partners. They have ideas, needs and priorities that don’t align perfectly with yours. To get the most out of partnerships and to go as far as you can with your company, you need to be a leader of interdisciplinary and cross-firm teams and that sometimes means sacrificing the short-term success of your company to the long-term benefits of the partnership.

Partnership should be entered into thoughtfully and carefully with plenty of open communication, documentation and a generous dollop benefit of the doubt on both sides. Don’t wait until the RFP drops to find a partner. By that time all the best teammates are probably locked up. You might find one then, but not a winning partner. As soon as you have an inkling of what the requirements will be of that coveted RFP, start looking around for the partners you need to round out your team.

Want to know more? Take a look at my deck from that training and then shoot me whatever questions you have!