A Process Diagram for Partnership Design

Where do strategic partnerships come into play when working on an innovation? To get some bearings , I’ve worked on a Partnership Design diagram, with the talented Emma Heijerman of JAM Visual Thinking. (see the visual below, and download it from slideshare for free!).

This diagram breaks down the Partnership Design process into 9 different steps. The visual aims to help in positioning your own partnership projects, and getting an overview of what steps come before partnership enters the innovation discussion, and which steps will follow.

In this blog post, we’ll go through each of these steps, and provide some references to support material to help get you underway to design game-changing partnerships!

Step 1. Challenge
It all begins with understanding the current challenge to the business, by examining 3 facets of the innovation. One is the business model at hand. The second facet is the business environment. The third is the vision for the business. By understanding these three facets, you can analyse what the current challenges, and opportunities are for your business model.

You can apply the following tools in this step:

1. Use the Business Model Canvas to map the business model.
2. You can use Strategyzer’s business environment map, to create an overview of the context in which the business model operates.
3. For defining a practical vision you can use the 5 Bold Steps template.

By combining the business environment map , and the vision statement, you can now perform a SWOT (Strength, Weakness, Opportunities, Threats) analysis, linking specific insights from the environment, and the vision, to the business model building blocks. The output is a solid argumentation of why you would need to change your business model in the first place.

Step 2. Ideation
Once you understand why you need to change, the next steps is to figure out how you could set in a course for change. There are many tools available to stimulate creativity in solving business challenges. Amongst those most used there are:

a. Napkin sketching for generating, and explaining ideas
b. The Four Actions Framework for making full use of the innovation spectrum, from eliminating, to reducing, raising, and creating new business model elements.
c. Option cards for getting a sense of the big questions that underly each potential business model direction

Use these exercises to generate ideas, and come to a selection that you would want to pursue.

Step 3. Partnership Intent
After you’ve chosen to run with a particular idea, the next step is to determine whether a partnership could help you in realising it. For this you can use the Partnership Intent Puzzle. This tool scans your own organisation to determine if you are fully equipped to execute on realising the innovation, or whether you’re missing a component, for which you might need a partner. The Partnership Intent Puzzle helps you discover whether partnerships are an optional route to realising your innovation.

Step 4. Partnership Canvas
If partnering is an option to pursue, the question is then what the partnership needs to look like. The Partnership Canvas provides a framework for designing partnership options, by bringing together the essential partnership building blocks. Use this tool to define how you intend to turn partnerships into a strategic fit for your business model.

Step 5. Shortlisting Partners
Now that you have an idea for the partnership, you need to start looking for potential partners who can fulfil the role. The Desired Value building block turns into a filter for selecting partners to work with. Look for the particular qualities you want to leverage from a partner, and create a list of companies that match those qualities.

Step 6. Engaging with Partners
Once you have the list, you can reach out to partners, and share your journey with them: why you need to change, why partnering is an option for you, and why you think that they area an interesting candidate for you to partner with. Encourage that partner to go through the same process. Guide them if they’re not there yet. Use this dialogue to create mutual understanding of the context for partnering. Once you share this understanding, you are ready for the next step.

Step 7. Partnership Design
The main objective of Partnership Design is to see if you and the partner have a matching perspective on the partnership. Is your partner willing to offer what you would desire to obtain from them, and vice versa? Do you have the same idea on how value will be transferred in your collaboration? And will that create the new asset you need for your business model?

Step 8. Hypotheses
So far you have been able to create a joint narrative for the partnership. This now needs to be put to the test! By creating an overview of the partnership, with the business model, and partnership canvas combined, you can derive the critical assumptions for the collaboration that apply to both partners.

By making clear what needs to be tested for each partner, you both understand what needs to be true before you are able to actually implement the partnership. For example: will joint branding with our partner lead to a larger reach, and will our partner benefit from our contribution to their value proposition?

Step 9. Experimentation
Having readied the hypotheses, you can start experimenting! A great tool for creating experiments is the Strategyzer Test Card. It helps you to structure your experiments, and document your learnings. Doing this together with your partner provides transparency on both ends on what each is doing to demystify the luring potential of the collaboration.

And lastly…
It is important to continue testing your critical hypotheses, until both partners are certain they’ve covered the biggest risks. The Partnership Design process and visual business design tool set is designed to provide guidance to realise this as quickly, and effectively as possible.

Jointly the Business Model, and Partnership canvas support better communication, and getting to concrete execution. As the former head of hardware partnerships at Spotify said to me about his rule of thumb for avoiding over-investment in creating partnerships:

“If we can’t get going with the partnership within a month, it’s likely not to work at all” – Pascal de Mul, Head of Partnerships at Deezer., former head of Hardware Partnerships at Spotify

Interested in a learn more about Partnership Design?
If you want to learn more about using the partnership canvas, then check out our Partnership Design training options, and other ways we could support you and your team.

You can also join the Partnership Design Linkedin group!

The Partnership Canvas

It’s been more than a year since we introduced the Partnership Proposition Canvas as a prototype tool for modelling key business model partnerships. Since its introduction, we’ve been testing the tool and refining it. In this post we share the latest version, which has proven to be simple in use, and more effective in getting the conversation of business model innovation through partnerships going. Allow us to introduce the Partnership Canvas: an essential tool for designing, negotiating, and adapting partnerships. This tool works as an add-on to the business model canvas.

What, another canvas?!
The reason we’ve developed the partnership canvas is that many organisations struggle with their partnerships. One of the main causes is that there is no structured approach available yet to help design strategies for partnerships. Naturally, the partnership discussion itself between organisations is often veiled in mist. As Henry Chesbrough, the figurehead of open innovation, wrote:

“few companies in our experience take the time to articulate their own business model. Fewer have any clear idea about the business models of their external relationships.”

That is not a good basis for creating a collaboration. People leave too many assumptions about their partnerships unaddressed, and that backfires the moment they go live.

What is a partnership?
The first hurdle in the partnership discussion is definition of the term partnership. You won’t be able to define a partnership by only mapping out the two partnering business models. That describes the result of the partnership. It doesn’t explain how the partnership works.

A partnership is more. It is an entity that sits in between the two business models that make up the partnership. This entity enables value to flow between two partnering business models. By combining value inputs from both business models in a partnership, they are able to create new forms of value that they both benefit from. (I’ve written about what can best, and best not be defined as a partnership from a business model perspective in a previous post).

Value exchange between two business models

The partnership canvas was created to demystify the partnership entity by defining its building blocks. The tool can be used to map existing, and design new models for partnerships. The partnership canvas helps to break through the boundary of possibilities for innovating with only your own business model.

The building blocks of a partnership
The first question you need to ask yourself when orienting on a partnership is what will be the purpose of the partnership. The key to defining this purpose is to question yourself on how you can contribute to a better, more complete experience for your customer. This could relate to aspects of availability, convenience, speed, price, performance, etc.

Some things don't change

Visual by Dave Gray

Based on definition of this purpose, you will be able to describe the missing element from your own business model, for which you are seeking a partner. You can use the definition of this element to screen candidate partners on a (set of )value(s) that you desire. This desired value makes for the first building block of your partnership design.

PC Presentation 1 DV

The second question is about your own contribution to the partnership. If you have identified what value you desire in a partner, then you need to develop a matching offer that connects with that value. A value offer is required, which is based on one or more elements from your own business model. An effective offer either complements or enhances the value you would desire from a partner. Only if this connection is made, do you have a basis for creating a relationship.

PC Presentation 2 VO

The third question demands clarification on how you will connect the desired and offered value. Through what collaboration activities or through what form will these values be connected? It is essential that both parties find a way to integrate the value that they are putting to the table. This transfer activity building block is the exchange by which synergy between the partnering business models is created.

PC Presentation 3 TA

With this third building block, an engine is created that enables value to flow between partners. But the partnership discussion doesn’t end there. Essentially what we’ve defined so far is a basis for connecting values. The ultimate question is whether this value engine enables you to create a new form of value that you can utilize to innovate in one of the building blocks of your business model. This question on created value makes up the fourth building block of the partnership.

PC Presentation 4 CV

Using the partnership canvas
Once you have mapped your business model, and desired value from a partner, you can use the partnership canvas to see how you can connect with a partner. The value flow between the both partners is made by linking all the building blocks together through a single line of reasoning. Use post-its to describe the elements of your partnership. If multiple value elements are involved in a partnership, then you can use color coding of post-its to connecting lines of value exchange.

PC w Post its

Another important feature built into the design of the partnership canvas is that it enables communication between a business model and its partnership. The value offer, and created value both have links to the business model of one the partners, and the desired value should relate to an attribute of the other partner.

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 22.37.00

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, the partnership canvas is designed in such a way that it accommodates the comparison of a partnership from both partners’ perspectives. By laying the foundation of the partnership canvas against each other, you will be able to compare whether:

  • Your desired value is what your partner is willing to offer
  • Your offer is the value that a partner desires from you
  • You have a same framing of the transfer activities, required to connect your values.

The figure below shows how a partnership can be compared from the perspective of two partners, each with their own business model. Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 21.39.34 By comparing two perspectives, prospecting partners can sense each other out early, and also learn from each other on the various opportunities that exist. Also, they can find out early on whether there actually is a partnering perspective in the first place. This might be a painful realisation to make, but it could save a lot of more hurt from a painful divorce in the future.


The partnership canvas creates empathy between two prospective partners on the strategic importance of the partnership to each. The canvas can be used as a stand-alone tool to quickly identify a partnering opportunity. But for full strategizing value, it’s better to use it in conjunction with the business model canvas.

The partnership canvas has been tested in various workshop settings with students and entrepreneurs. It has demonstrably contributed to better partnership discussions. Parties become clear about each other’s strategic objectives. Also, they learn from each other about the various opportunities there are to partner. It’s not a matter of making one grand master plan for an offer the partner can’t refuse, but more of finding out together what the opportunities are.

Stay tuned for more guidelines on how to use the partnership canvas on this blog. You can freely download, and use the partnership canvas [SlideShare login required, or send me an email: info@partnershipcanvas.com. The tool is published under a creative commons license, so it’s free, but please review back to the source. I hope to hear from your experiences!

Interested in a training on the Partnership Canvas?
If you want to learn more about using the partnership canvas, then check out our Partnership Design training options.

Word of thanks
I couldn’t have developed this tool without the help of some special people. First I would like to thank my colleagues and students at Wageningen University for creating opportunities to test out the canvas. Next, I would like to thank Mike Lachapelle for some really foundational feedback on the design of the canvas, and Salim Virani for some interesting pointers on shapes. Lastly, a huge thanks goes out to Ernst Houdkamp, whose visual thinking skills kept me sharp on finding improvements for the canvas, and who had the patience to stick with me through the many iterations of the tool.