A Smooth Daily Alliance Operation

Posted By: Jon Lavietes ASAP Webinar, Member Resources,

Jeff Shuman and Jan Twombly have seen it all in their decades of leading alliance management consulting engagements. They not only know what alliance success and failure looks like, they know their root causes and underlying predictors. Shuman, CSAP, PhD, cofounder of The Rhythm of Business and professor emeritus of management at Bentley University, and Twombly, CSAP, president of The Rhythm of Business and ASAP board member, took time out of their schedule to share tips on three aspects of alliance management that go a long way in steering alliances to their respective North Stars—1) the alliance operating model, 2) onboarding processes, and 3) communication protocols—in the latest ASAP Webinar, “Hidden Gold: The Impact on Alliance Results from Overlooked Fundamentals.”

When alliances fall short of achieving their intended goals, oftentimes it is the operating model that has failed. Put another way, a faulty operating framework is one of those aforementioned primary signs of a partnership falling short. The Rhythm of Business has conducted assessments of what “good” looks like in an alliance over the years, which the firm has subsequently used to derive benchmarks for alliance excellence (and mediocrity). Shuman and Twombly have found a 40 percent improvement in overall alliance success measures and team enthusiasm in partnerships that score 70 percent agreement or higher with these assessments around process alignment, team empowerment, communication protocols, and onboarding practices compared with those that score below 60 percent agreement in those same categories. 

These statistics provide hard proof of something that might seem like it goes without saying: “The more effective operating models result in better outcomes,” said Twombly.  

Better Together, Whether Two-by-Two or Divide-and-Conquer

Shuman proffered four design principles for an effective alliance operating model: 

  • No gaps or overlaps – Too often, alliances either don’t have enough of employees’ time to cover necessary duties or they have too many cooks in the kitchen duplicating work, according to Shuman.
  • Leverage strengths – A company was ostensibly chosen for its expertise in a certain area; the allies should figure out whether to use a “Noah’s Ark” model, where alliance counterparts in each division jointly tackle shared partnership duties, or a “divide-and-conquer” arrangement, a distributed model in which the partners handle their responsibilities more or less independently.  
  • Define processes – Alliance workflows have to jibe with each partner’s internal governance procedures and work processes.
  • One-team mindset – Shuman recommended thinking of the alliance as its own entity: “Alliance, Inc.”—it is critical that everybody operates in a “we” mode rather than an “us and them” mentality and uses the alliance’s North Star to guide decisions. 

“This Alliance Is Sucking My Soul Out of My Body”

Twombly shared the myriad ways in which alliance team members feel the pain when these principles aren’t in place and operating models have gone awry. It can be experienced in the form of constant fire-fighting, disjointed conversations, inordinate time spent on a particular alliance, excessive meetings, duplication of activities, and that wonderful feeling of being blindsided by partners who contradict agreements, among others.

“This alliance is sucking my soul out of my body on a daily basis,” said Twombly, recalling the most extreme comment she heard from an alliance team member working on an alliance that had gone off the rails. 

Duplicating Efforts Prevents Partners from Working As One

At the root of many ill-functioning alliance operating models is the duplication of efforts, and to rectify this problem, Twombly recommended addressing three areas, the first of which was each organization’s interface with internal governance. Twombly stressed the importance of making team and Joint Steering Committee (JSC) members “understand [how] internal approvals need to be [conducted] and the authority teams have” within their organizations, so that the parties can order and align partnership processes more effectively. The second way partners could help cut down in redundancies: design the workflow based on the project plan and deliverables. Perhaps one partner takes the lead on a big project but agrees to some prearranged checkpoints when milestones are approaching in order to ensure that everything is on the right path. Eventually, both parties will arrive at a point where the level of trust is high enough that partners will accept a deliverable without scrutiny if the party working on it meets pre-agreed-upon criteria. 

“It could take a little bit of time to get here. At the beginning of the alliance, there’s a lot of knowledge transfer that has to happen,” said Twombly, before adding that one party has likely worked in a certain area longer and has greater expertise at the outset of the partnership.

Foresight Prevents Fire Drills

Finally, alliance managers can boost their partnerships by forecasting issues that will require meetings between the partners down the road and aligning processes for making those corresponding key decisions. Data sharing and use, publication strategy, quality review,  compliance, third-party contracting, and commercial geographic market strategy evaluation are some of the most common issues that require this type of foresight, according to Twombly. 

“If you alert people to the fact that they need to do it, and you convene the key stakeholders to define each party’s must-haves, it’s not going to be a fire drill when something comes up,” she said.

Time Spent on Proper Onboarding Is Cheaper

Shuman delved deep into what makes for an effective onboarding process and the common root causes of bad new-team-member handoffs. The latter is often a product of not assigning a person to do the job, or tabbing a functional leader but failing to follow up on whether that individual adequately fulfilled onboarding duties. 

Failure to onboard a new team or committee member properly on the roles, norms, and project deliverables of a particular alliance can result in rehashed decisions, misalignment on actions, and a lack of anticipation of how partners will work together, which can frustrate team members to the point where they will opt out of important partnership-related assignments. Shuman reminded the audience that one of the alliance manager’s most important duties is to “manage the cost of time.”

“For each one of those days [lost to ineffective onboarding], the cash register is ringing,” he said.  

Five Better Onboarding Practices

Shuman delivered five recommendations for better onboarding practices:

  • Get HR involved – The department should prepare an orientation package explaining why alliances are important to the organization. “You want to make that investment and make sure that people are fully briefed before they assume a role as a member of an alliance committee or team member,” he said. 
  • Create content – Shuman urged the audience to craft and continually update alliance briefing books and make them accessible online as “living documents.” 
  • Have others onboard the working team – Alliance managers might be better served by delegating cross-functional working team onboarding duties to the particular functional head spearheading that part of the collaboration. “Alliance managers at the end of the day, as you know, are too busy to be involved in briefing everybody that gets on a team,” said Shuman, who added that it goes a long way if they “do a good job briefing the functional team leaders and make sure they understand it’s their job to brief the people on their teams.” Instead of briefing team members, alliance managers should concentrate their efforts on…
  • Briefing executives – Shuman endorsed the practice of providing personalized onboarding with planned follow-up for new JSC members.
  • Open forums – These sessions should be held quarterly to field questions new members might have as they wade into their new assignments. 

Stakeholder Maps, Cascading Pathways, and a Red Phone

How do you mitigate the chance for unpleasant surprises over the course of your alliance affairs? By building a comprehensive, holistic internal and external communications framework, one with regular peer-to-peer engagement utilizing the trusty alliance stakeholder map. Alliance managers need to agree on the pathways for that communication, and they shouldn’t be a roadblock to the aforementioned interaction between cross-functional peers. The communications plan should be transparent, which Twombly said means agreeing on how information “cascades” to other alliance team members. And, of course, alliance managers must be reachable on the “red phone” during truly dire emergencies or critical situations that need immediate rectification.

“No matter what day of the week or what time, if there is something urgent—really urgent—you can reach each other,” said Twombly. 

Corporate Comm May Have a Plan; Your Technology Infrastructure Has a Single Version of Truth

Twombly delved deeper into the communications plan itself and listed the components it should ideally cover. 

“Who initiates it? Who does it go to? What kind of content does it have? What vehicle do you use? And what kind of timing?” she said. 

She also suggested that the corporate communications department could serve as a tremendous resource for managing  the macro touchpoints of the alliance, and she mentioned that many companies are creating alliance operations positions in part to handle the teamwide correspondence.  

The plan must be supported by a secure infrastructure that contains messaging, group chat, email integration, shared calendar, action item notification, decision log, and goal tracking capabilities. In addition, it should feature a collaborative workspace and analytics functionality that enables team members to pull reports on how timely decisions are being made, how often they’re being delayed, and the number of times JSC meetings have been postponed, among other statistics. If all team members utilize this communications infrastructure thoroughly, it will serve as the place where all team members can access the “single version of truth,” according to Twombly.