Business Partnering – It’s So Hot Right Now!

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On the agenda of every corporate services area, be it IT, HR, Finance or the more modern incarnations of business improvement and innovation….is business partnering.

But there’s a lot more to this than good intentions and writing it down in a plan.  Here’s what’s required to get to this to work.

‘Business Partnering’

First – what are we on about?  I like to use the ideas we can find in Patrick Hoverstadt and Lucy Loh’s book Patterns of Strategy, where they describe in detail the strategy of ‘Strategic Partner’.  One of the supplier family of strategies, this is where we look to cause change in the other partner for the benefit of both of us.

Convert this to internal actors, and we are talking about causing operational areas to make changes that are to the benefit of who the organisation serves.  Note the word ‘causing’…that’s deliberate.  It’s more than taking orders.  It’s actively shaping the relationship.

First Steps

The key is this: you don’t get to show up and announce “I’m now your business partner”.  There’s work to do.

Why Be One?

Step Zero is the big one – why be oneBusiness partnering is but one of a variety of approaches to supplying services.  It might be the case that being a regular supplier, or an outsourcing partner might be entirely appropriate.  Look at the plans of the organisation, the industry you are in, how quick it’s moving and what the strategic risks are….then make a real decision about whether business partnering is in fact the most valuable approach.

Who To?

Our next question is….who?  You don’t need to be a business partner to every other area in the organisation.  In fact, it’s not possible, as there are a lot more of them than there are of you (and if your organisation has more people in corporate services roles than operational…call me, as you are on an express train to going out of business).

Instead, look at the environment each operational area is in, and ask yourself which are dealing with the most fast-moving, changeable and uncertain factors.  Which carries the most strategic risk and requires the most looking ahead?  Put them in order, work your way down the list until you run out of resources…then stop!  The rest can get a standard outsourced service.

Remember, good strategy is about closing doors.  You aren’t much of a business partner if you can’t be strategic yourself!

You Need Some Capabilities

People don’t want to partner with those that can’t add value.  So you need certain capabilities in place before you venture out. In other words, you need your act together.  Borrowing from Patrick and Lucy again, these are:

Foresight – having a considered view of what might happen to that operational area in the future and what it means.  You don’t need to pilot your spacecraft into a black hole to shift time, you just need to get curious in terms of where they are in their environment, and how that environment might change. 

(And don’t do this by asking them.  Do some work yourself so you can bring something to the conversation).

Operational Speed – the ability to go faster than your business partner both in terms of delivering of regular stuff and developing new things to support them in their goals.  You’re not much of a business partner if they can do things quicker and easier themselves, and if you can’t deliver, you can’t build trust.   Remember, you don’t have to get to light-speed…just be faster than them.

And what list would be complete in the modern era without….

Agility – this is the ability to change the nature and shape of what you are delivering in response to things changing for your business partner.  Operational speed is one thing, this is about being able to change in decent time what you operationally speedy at.   If you’re partnering, things are going to be affecting both of you now…so you need to change with the times.

If you don’t yet have sufficient foresight, operational speed and agility in place relative to the first area you’re proposing for business partnering….let it go for now…and get to work on it! 

If you have done the work however, it’s time to look at….

Putting It Into Action

With sufficient (not perfect) foresight, speed and agility, you’re ready to venture into business partnering.  Your first task is to…

Make a Sale!  The key here is to not be a salesperson arriving with a brochure.

Instead, it’s about finding a way to get the other person talking about their issues.  What’s concerning them, what they’re trying to get done, what worries them in their environment.  You are there to listen.  No advice!  Just listen.

Only once you’re framed and reframed what’s going on can you start to tentatively propose some value.  Tentatively, because this is about building trust that you understand them, not about getting them to sign on some dotted line.  If you can discuss what a better future might look like…you’re getting there. 

It might take multiple meetings, but if you can get to the point where you have agreed actions, it’s now about…

Delivering.  This is where all of your work on speed and agility comes in.  The game is about trust, and you can destroy all the trust you built by listening and understanding if you can’t do what you said you would.  So, deliver!

And while this is happening, you now…

Deepen the relationship.  Keep up the conversations, listening and offering your foresight (remember that from earlier?).  You want to end up being able to discuss how things are really going together, which allows the relationship to co-evolve as trust is built.   This allows you to bring more value, and get that happy circle going.

Weird Ones

Now, there are a couple of interesting situations that are worth covering.

No Trust to Start With

Due to past efforts on both sides, you might be starting with no trust.  That’s fine, the job here is to simply focus on delivering.  Given this was one of the pre-requisites for business partnering, you’re already working on that.  Just make sure that you:

  1. Only promise what you know you can deliver (wear the pain of saying sorry upfront)
  2. Put busines partnering ambitions aside until you’ve proven that you can

The sign that this is changing is when you are asked for your opinion on something.  Keep an eye out for that.

Won’t Have You As A Business Partner

Sometimes the other party just doesn’t want a strategic partner!  This comes down to either politics (it looks bad in their eyes if you’re seen to also be shaping things) or ego (they just can’t handle treating a supplier as an equal player).  In situations like this, there are two things to do;

  1. Remember who is paying you.  It’s the organisation.  So your real job is to serve the organisation.  If this means appearing to be second fiddle to a political player or ego-merchant…perhaps it’s worth just getting over it (with a bit of closed-door venting of course!)
  2. Adopt the Jeeves strategy!  This is a brilliant strategy identified by Patrick and Lucy where you position yourself as the one-down, ‘yes sir/madam’ character, while at the same time you are actively shaping the relationship.  If you’ve ever said “make them think it was their idea”, you’ve played a Jeeves strategy.

This strategy is tough to pull off as it requires the ego development to be comfortable in helping achieve results for the greater good that you will not get credit for. And no one can give the game away.  But…it’s often a great way to make a difference…and it’s kind of fun!

Bringing it Home

Business partnering is the harder path, it’s much easier to focus on being a good commodity supplier where the work is to manage volume and demand.  For business partnering, managing volume and demand is just the first step.

So we have to ask – why bother doing any of this? 

It’s quite simple.  Because you can be more useful!  Which feels good.

Just make sure you’ve done the work.

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