Goldfinger, the Elephant and making partnerships work!

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The benefits of partnership have long been extolled for public, private, voluntary and community organisations!  And the benefits of true partnership are invaluable in managing change across an organisation. But the word ‘partnership’ is probably one of the most abused in the modern business lexicon.

First a little background on my interest in partnership!

Many moons ago when I was a Civil Servant, one of my more interesting roles was to Chair the Elephant and Castle Employers’ Group in South London.

The Department of Health has a long standing relationship with the Elephant and Castle.  Metro Central Heights, a striking multi-story complex, was once Alexander Fleming House and headquarters of the Department.  The building was notorious!  Designed by modernist architect Ernő Goldfinger, it won him a Civic Trust Award in 1964 but it may also have influenced Ian Fleming’s choice of names for his villain! The Department continues to have staff at the Elephant but now in rather more comfortable accommodation.

Anyway, for my sins, I chaired the group on behalf of the Department and we were successful in a number of areas.  For example, we persuaded the London Borough of Southwark to improve street lighting and they refurbished the miserable under-passes!  Our fame spread and somewhere in the archives of the Open University is a talking heads video of me extolling the virtues of community partnership.  We had strong partnerships with the local authority, police, transport providers etc.

In chairing the group, I drew on my experience of matrix management in managing IT projects.  Projects, and organisational change programmes in particular, have always drawn heavily for their success on the ability of project and programme managers to develop and manage partnerships across organisations.

So I believe it is worth looking more closely at what partnership really means!

I believe a partnership is a joint working arrangement where the partners

  • Work otherwise more or less independently
  • Agree to co-operate to achieve common goals or outcomes
  • Plan and implement a jointly agreed project or programme, often with joint staff or resources
  • Share relevant information and pool risks and rewards.

Whether the partners choose to engage usually depends on answers to the following questions?

  • What will the partnership deliver that we could not deliver on our own?
  • Is it clear what our role in the partnership will be?
  • Do we know how long the partnership is going to last?
  • Are the aims and objectives of the partnership clear?
  • Are we clear what we are expected to contribute?

If you are going to engage in partnership there are some pitfalls to avoid.


Competition between different parts of an organisation can be positive but in cross-organisation programmes it can be menace.  It takes work and leadership at the start of a partnership to build the partners into a team and develop a sense of common purpose.  This is where time needs to be spent, not on later point scoring because you did not make the initial investment!

The Wrong People

A partnership needs people with the power and authority to get the job done.   They may not need to be senior but they do need real delegated authority.  If every decision needs to be referred to the top of one partner’s long management chain before it can be made, you have the wrong person or it isn’t a partnership!  It also important that partners cannot pull rank on each other!  Partners need to be equal, or to agree to act in an equal way for the purposes of the partnership, and you might need to record this in formal terms of reference!

Mission creep

If a partnership works well, the partners will usually enjoy working together!  This means they will look for other things to do.  This can get in the way of delivering the overall change.  This is one reason why the task or outcome needs to be very clearly defined at the beginning.

Culture clash

Even within one organisation different cultures can emerge in different divisions.  This can make working together difficult.  Again this is where leadership and time taken at the start to build a team and develop a sense of common purpose pays dividends.  Aim to get people to talk explicitly about differences and then find the common ground and the shared vision.

The Eternal Partnership

As the name says – this goes on forever!  Long after its usefulness wears out, no one wants to call a halt.  So the relationship slowly withers on the vine with useless meetings, frustration and wasted resources.  Someone needs to call a halt, agree an exit strategy and close it down.  If you want to maintain your credibility as a programme manager, be the one who recognises when the job is done.  Arrange a closing down ceremony and write the thank you letters to the participants; most will be grateful and the others need to be helped to move on.

It takes time to develop the trust between partners that is required to make partnerships work well.  But my word good partnership working can be powerful!

I would love to hear your experiences of partnerships good and bad!  Are there other lessons we can share?

As for me!  Well I’m heading back to London SE1 soon to see that old Elephant – I remember it well and with great fondness!

Wendy Mason is a performance, programme, contract management and change specialist. She works as a consultant, business coach and blogger. Adept at problem solving, she is a great person to bring in when that one thing you thought was straightforward turns out not to be! If you have a problem talk to Wendy – she can help you – email her at or ring ++44(0)7867681439