“Partnering” — besides being a mandatory buzzword — is a curious term. Nowadays, instead of taking over a company, we partner with it. We don’t sell anything anymore; we partner. And now, rather than outsourcing, we create strategic partnerships. While the goal of an amicable and mutually rewarding relationship is admirable, what each party truly expects from the other in an outsourcing arrangement formed under a “partnering vision” is quite different.
The client often wants a “well-behaving provider.” But what the client means by “well-behaving” is a provider that accepts nearly infinite scope creep without a commensurate increase in price, immediately reacts to the client’s ad hoc needs (at no charge), and performs what the client really meant in the specification instead of what was actually written and quoted (again, at no charge) — all the while acting under a fixed-price, punitive contract. This interpretation illustrates the client’s version of partnering as an environment where “the client is always right.” A “master/slave” relationship appears to be the goal.
As you might expect, the provider looks at partnering a bit differently. First of all, there must be blind, rather than earned, trust. The client should not ask any uncomfortable questions and should assume the provider is right (or risk undermining trust). Under no conditions is the provider’s margin to be adversely affected in any way, so anything that will cost the provider money must be charged at a profit. Moreover, partnering is about more than just the current contract; it is in everything the provider does; hence, if the client needs to procure more from the market than the scope of the current contract allows for, then this should also be procured from the provider wherever possible. The relationship is supposed to be monogamous; using another provider equates to your spouse cheating on you: it makes the client untrustworthy. After all, how many partners can one have in a marriage?
True partnering requires three times the investment in the relationship than a “nonpartnering” deal, with the people on both sides being the key. This investment is geared toward the following:
- Ensuring strong interpersonal relationships at multiple levels in both parties
- Implementing joint problem solving and opportunity discovery techniques
- Encouraging knowledge sharing and capturing solutions
- Developing a deep understanding of both organizations’ strengths and limitations as well as the political environments in which they operate
When is this investment worthwhile? When there is a high degree of uncertainty in the contract, typically due to the unpredictability of the subject matter (scope changes will be normal), unpredictability of resourcing requirements (uncertain supply sources/cost to supply), or long duration (unpredictable context, including business/markets, political/regulatory, and technological). Only a partnering-style relationship can handle significant change and not treat the contract as a zero-sum game where there is a winner and loser. The investment is, at a minimum, a hedge against being the loser and, ideally, in fostering an environment where both client and provider can win.