The Art of Partnering

Tools of the Trade

I first got involved with Jazz North in 2013 for a piece of R&D on an artist commissioning scheme in line with the organisation’s founding principle of partnership-working – which resulted in the dfscore pilot project I produced with Rodrigo Constanzo – and it’s been really great to see the organisation grow and flourish, from a project-led structure to a fully-fledged NPO with a fantastic new Executive Director, Lesley Jackson (coming from Leeds-based Phoenix Dance Theatre).  

This partnership-working principle is both a great opportunity and challenge: with the right synergy and efficient pooling of resources, ideas can spark brighter and projects become bigger. However, there’s no template for a perfect partnership: the terms of the relationship have to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis, and it will widely depend on the nature of the project, budget, timeline, resources available including staff – so pretty much everything! And like with any relationship, sometimes it just clicks, and sometimes you need to lay down a few things before you get properly started.

Preliminary Thinking: Checklist & Questions

I’ve started to develop a few ideas towards a partnership agreement or charter, something that would reduce risk without being stifling.

So far it’s very much about what partners need to discuss, define and revisit throughout the project cycle, with the following broad categories to address:

      Leadership: who is responsible for what
      Communication: how and how often will partners communicate, and who will be responsible for external communications
      Administration: who will be in charge of updating the budget, booking meeting rooms, taking and distributing minutes….
      Evaluation: how, when, when will the project be evaluated; who will take part, and why
      Legacy: what do the partners want to achieve, what will happen after the project phase ends

I’m still in the process of researching and developing this partnership agreement checklist – or whichever format it ends up taking – and have recently come across some interesting resources that I’ve listed below. 

The National Enquiry: The Art of Partnering  

When I conducted the research into co-commissioning and artistic partnership back in 2013, I was quite surprised by the lack of formal agreements and the ad hoc nature of relationships, even at international level. A recent Cultural Enquiry report on The Art of Partnering, led by King’s College London in collaboration with the BBC, published in October 2015, found that, amongst arts organisations surveyed:


This seems to confirms that many partnerships are started on a trust basis and conducted rather informally, and therefore run the risk to be under-serviced, to the point of not managing to conduct an evaluation.

I do love a well designed report, and this one has got a nice collection of pretty bubbly infographics to highlight key findings, of which I’ve copied a few below.

Things to Think About

There’s also a detailed section about methodology, something I’m especially interested in at the moment, and lots of case studies, such as Teach Through Music (a partnership of 5 London-based music organisations delivering CPD for music teachers) and SPINE (library services in Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk collaborating to share back office facilities). 

The View from the Producers: Taking Bearings

Also in the past few days, I’ve come across another interesting document about partnerships produced by a British arts institution – in a fairly serendipitous manner, as it’s a document that was mentioned in passing by
Claire Doherty (of Bristol-based Situations) in a video interview she did for The Art of MOOC, a new online experiment about public art, education and participation.

This time it’s a much more personal take on what makes a partnership a success, the fruit of a peer learning event exploring quality in the context of the Creative People and Places programme (an Arts Council flagship programme of investment into arts organisations working in places and with people identified as remote and disengaged). Titled Taking Bearings, it starts with a lovely illustrated “Map of the Voyage to the Island of Quality” commissioned from artist Nicole Mollett and also includes a short story by Sarah Butler – a nice way to position firmly this document within the realm of artistic collaboration. 

Carte du Parnenariat

I really like the journey metaphor and the compass-style layout of questions, as it helps to envisage such partnerships as processes, always moving and growing.

Compass Route Planning

In her introduction, Claire Doherty explains: “We have devised these prompts collectively to be used for ‘a meeting with oneself’, or as a device to enable more open conversation with participants, stakeholders and collaborators.” On the whole, It’s much more conceptual than my own set of questions, and I find it helpful for daring to go to fairly uncomfortable places (“Is the obstacle due to a disagreement about where you are headed?”) and bringing home some common sense (“Have you looked at this from another direction?”).

The Theoretical Background: Enabling Effective Collaboration

Mission Models Money – an action-research programme that ran from 2004 to 2014 – studied funded and observed 6 pilot partnerships between 2008 and 2010 to develop innovative thinking and resources about collaboration and partnerships in the arts. Through this “Enabling Effective Collaboration” initiative, they produced a bunch of documents, from case studies (such as this Opera North + University of Leeds project, or this network of cultural venues in Newcastle and Gateshead) to guidance for funders and a set of practical guidelines and insights drawn from the 2-year research:

A. A typology of structures that can support effective collaboration

“Partnership” means something different to everyone, but MMM identifies 9 models of collaboration based on the case studies and additional examples: from Fully and Partially Integrated Mergers (such as Trinity Laban) to the Creative Adhocracy, a casual, trust-based relationship between individuals choosing to work together (a common occurrence in the arts, of which MMM is an example).

B. 10 essential Competencies, Qualities and Attributes required for collaborative working

As illustrated in the above Map of Quality, there are numerous pitfalls in the partnership journey. This document lists the key behaviours that contribute to the success of a partnership, based on interviews with case studies participants. As noted by one of the interviewees, it is crucial to understand from the start what will be required through the project lifecycle so that partners can choose appropriate project leaders and invest in the professional development if necessary.

  1. Seeing systems
  2. Wanting to learn
  3. Building shared vision
  4. Building a critical mass for change within an organisation
  5. Developing mutual trust and respect
  6. Managing across boundaries
  7. Communicating effectively and appropriately
  8. Confronting issues and managing conflict
  9. Adapting to changing circumstances
  10. Valuing risk taking, tolerating failure
    C. The values created by good collaboration

    These are the added values that participants have observed as an indirect result of their collaborative projects, beyond the desired planned outcomes:

    1. Re-affirmation of vision and mission
    2. Release of new energy
    3. Opportunity to learn
    4. Opportunity to innovate
    5. Generating and enhancing influence
D. Frameworks and planning processes that can enable effective collaboration

This last document is “an introduction to planning collaborative activity and a digest of key early stage challenges”, including advice on working with external specialists. It introduces the notion of “disciplined collaboration” developed by management professor Morten Hansen, which he defines as “the leadership practice of properly assessing when to collaborate (and when not to) and instilling in people both the willingness and the ability to collaborate when required.” MMM has developed a framework inspired by Hansen’s work and based on case studies findings to take into account the specificities of the not-for-profit arts & culture sector. The full framework, with additional questions and references, can be found on MMM’s website, and I’ve summarised the key points below.

Step 1: Evaluate opportunities for collaboration

This step is about identifying levels of experience, resources and relevance of the proposed outcome. Hansen warns that “collaboration is a means to an end and that end is great performance. This means that often it may be better not to collaborate, because there is simply no compelling reason to do so.” This is also the right time to create a relevant collaborative working proposition, and this can be framed around the themes of mission, models and money:

How will collaborating help better delivery of the organisation’s mission or how can it help renew mission?
What will be the advantages for our operational model?
And what positive impact will it have on our finances?

Step 2. Spot barriers to collaboration

Hansen proposes four typical barriers:

• The ‘not invented here’ barrier (people are unwilling to reach out to others)
• The hoarding barrier (people are unwilling to provide help)
• The search barrier (people are not able to find what they are looking for)
• The transfer barrier (people are not able to work with people they do not know well)

To which MMM adds “over-extension and undercapitalisation” as specific to the arts sector, in other words, lack of time, money and resources.

At this stage, partners should be aware of these potential pitfalls and be ready to ask themselves some difficult questions about their own limitations, behavioural, organisational and/or practical barriers that might prevent successful collaborative working. It’s also the right time to take stock of the resources available on all sides, including staff, and to start considering options for what MMM calls “Technical Assistance”, in other words external advisors / experts.

Step 3. Tailor solutions to tear down the barriers

After identifying potential problems, partners can start identifying solutions: it’s time to clarify the shared vision, articulate the strategic objectives, put plans in place to gain new skills or draw in external experience.

Structures and methodologies should also be developed at this stage, defining roles and responsibilities and putting in place strategies of accountability.

Step 4. Review and embed the process

Finally, special attention should be paid to implementing feedback mechanisms throughout the project cycle and enabling sustainable learning across the partnering organisations.
To conclude, MMM shares insights into “early stage collaboration challenges” that pilot project participants encountered – in other words, what they would do better if they could start all over again.

  • Crystallising the purpose: even if it evolves over time, it’s better to have a direction in mind than to navigate in the dark.
  • Ensuring mission congruence: the mission is the identity of an organisation – so it’s essential that partners understand fully how their values and beliefs overlap or diverge.
  • Recognising the different kinds of value being created: as this is an essential element of the partnership legacy, it’s important to acknowledge gains and benefits at all stages of the project
  • Communicating: how, how often, with whom… a communication structure between brand new partners is a must.
  • Paying sufficient attention to ‘soft skills’: issues of leadership and relationships need to be looked at from the start.
  • Understanding resourcing needs: these can be time, money, in-house skills and accessible external assistance.