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!

“Your focus is not my priority”

Together with Niti Bhan, I organized a workshop in November 2012, for a group of Dutch stakeholders (private sector, research, government, NGO’s), who contribute to and collaborate on sustainable development in agricultural value chains from developing countries. The workshop’s purpose was to provide for an opportunity where these stakeholders could come together and reflect on their work for their targeted groups of subsistence farmers. It was an opportunity provided by the Dutch Ministries of Economic Affairs and Foreign Affairs. Here’s my take of what went down.

The setup for the experience
To bring focus to the discussion that was to take place, Niti and I purposely put the farmer at the centre stage for the day; the farmer being the ‘user’ of the knowledge about and technology for innovations that can bring sustainable development. We developed several so called design challenges. In these challenges, break-out groups were anointed to be a specific actor in value chain. They were charged with the task of introducing several sustainable (or good) agricultural practices (GAP’s) to specific farmers (tea in Kenya, coffee in Cameroon, and cocoa in Ivory Coast), taking a set of specified constraints into consideration.

Design challenge

                                    Structure of the design challenge

We set the scene with a great introduction by Niti. Her work showed some of the patterns in the effects that uncertainty in cash income and in time, has on organizing life, work, and consumption in the informal rural economy. The intent of providing these insights was to invoke thinking on how closely and in what way stakeholders involve their users and user needs in the design of the actual value chain development programs they implement. We gave our groups full access to design support from the excellent JAM design studio (who also created all the presented visuals). The design sheet as shown above was simple enough, and the support competent enough to allow the group of non-designers to engage in a user-centered problem-solving exercise.

Insights on the multi-stakeholder working process
When the break-out groups re-convened after their design exercises, we asked each group to present their ideas, and discuss their assumptions and constraints with the audience. Across all presentations we discovered an interesting pattern. Participants found themselves to be confronted with an inability to associate with the user, deeming that area of the value chain apprehensive for conjecture about farmers’ needs, and too far removed in terms of values. In our attempt to lower the barriers to applying the user-centered approach through a free-form exercise, we apparently raised an inherently imbedded barrier to consider the user. Rather, participants insisted to direct their problem-solving attention to a more abstract, distant level of thinking (the value chain), or a particular part of the value chain that is more closely associated with Western values (working from the perspective of Nespresso, rather than the coffee farmer).  

Distance from the user

Distance to the user (drawn in synthesis of workshop findings)

This inability to associate with the users had impactful implications for ways in which the groups constructed design solutions. The approaches used were vertical in nature, thinking only within the bounds of what would directly associate with production of a particular agricultural commodity. In their thinking on solutions, people diverted to general principles (tea production provides for income, and thus makes the farmers happy), and then divided the relevant principles into disciplinary segments (like finance, training, agronomy, trade, etc).

The solution for the cocoa farmer in Ivory Coast

A solution to the cocoa problem, but does the cocoa farmer want it? (workshop output)

Our groups’ working assumption appeared to be that creation of a conducive environment around the user (relating to the group’s particular focus area) would convince the user to adopt sustainable farming practices. Our working groups would define the elements of this conducive environment by using expert statements about the needs of the users. Expert opinion was thus applied as a substitute for direct understanding of the user. It provided the working groups with the sense of control they needed to make design decisions, relieving them from the uncertainty of the exercise. The upshot was that our groups created a logical construct for their solutions which circumvented the farmer, working around their own design constraint of not holding applicable user insights. 

Sustainable Value Chain 6

Experts say… (drawn in synthesis of workshop findings)

How would these insights translate to adoption of solutions?
Though it may seem a sensible way of working, the dependency on expert input actually creates a marketing problem for transferring innovations for sustainable development to farmers. Expert insight appears to displace the use of actual user-related insight to influence design. On top of that, the negotiation process underlying the solution which is provided, conducted by stakeholders here, leaves no control to the user to adapt it to her priorities.

Negotiating and trust creation

The proposition as it is currently made (drawn in synthesis of workshop findings)

Such approach would thus preclude any method for calibrating a solution configuration to match to the priorities that are part of the mindset of the user. In fact the project’s offer could even be considered as a potential liability from the perspective of the user, who has to find (negotiable) ways to control for uncertainties like available time and money. “Your focus is not my priority” would be the mode of cooperation with farmers, likely causing mounting problems with trust, and adoption.

Perspective for bridging the values gap with the user
The value chain could in potential be used to achieve development results. But the workshop exercise has shown that we need to pay more attention to creating suitable interfaces for the exchange of values. This entails consideration of the following aspects:

  • First of all, it’s important to take segmentation of the targeted users into account. For instance, there is a world of difference between subsistence and below subsistence smallholder farming. Who do we want to target, and not to target?
  • Related to the first point, decision makers for value chain programs will need to obtain a higher sense-level about the user. This need not require an extensive profiling, but just enough up to date information containing a minimum level of scope and detail about the target user persona’s. This will support a more lateral perspective in decision making for solution development.

 Sustainable Value Chain 8Sampling and segmenting your users

  • Uncertainty is inherent to the challenge of value chain development in the informal economy. Experimentation is a far more likely management approach to deal with that constraint, than expert opinion. Before rolling out large programs, decision makers should at least have tested the smallest number of core features of the idea in their most minimal form with targeted users. Experiments could invite smart and small feedback loops to validate the concept, and inform decision making.

These points are a challenge to development. Allocation decisions by donors are not aligned to such approaches. Also, I have focussed much on insights that could help in increasing the likelihood of success. But in fact, in innovation practice, it is actually more common to learn from failure. In the way development is currently organized there are incentives to rather obscure failure than obtain traction in learnings from it. This is another barrier that needs to be overcome. Ultimately we need a vision on how we further our learning in development. We need to come to a discussion level of ideas where N.G.O.s are able to say to donors, ‘Don’t fund this, it doesn’t work.’ – should that apply.
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This is the fourth piece in a continuing series of posts (starting here) on what the role of human-centered design could be in development work. I’m working on this together with Niti Bhan, who will also be posting her observations at her Perspective blog. Posts are categorized as VCD