Back on Track: What to Do When an Alliance Goes Off the Rails

Posted By: Jon Lavietes Member Resources, ASAP Roundtables,

As much as everyone would love their alliances to be completely harmonious, circumstances will lead to individual conflicts and periods of extended turbulence from time to time. These rocky predicaments are often make-or-break for collaborations, and they put the alliance managers overseeing these partnerships to the test. How do you regain control of the situation? How do alliance managers go about resolving differences and getting everybody on the same page? We explored this issue in last month’s ASAP roundtable discussion, “North Star or South Pole? What to Do When a Partnership Goes Off the Rails.”

Speak Up, Sit Back, and Listen

Innumerable factors can set a partnership adrift. In biopharma, alliances can last more than a decade. The business world sees so much fluctuation over that long of a time period; it is natural for individuals and the companies they work for to continually readjust their priorities, and sometimes long-standing alliances lose the momentum they generated earlier in the partnership. 

“Things change, the industry changes, the collaboration changes,” said Shiho Kaneta, CA-AM, director of alliance management at Novartis Pharma AG. Kaneta began the breakout session that she was spearheading with a story of a 15-year-old alliance that had hit tough times—it had seen reductions in budget and resources, and the relationship had gone stale. Her outsider’s perspective actually enabled her to take a fresh look at and reevaluate the alliance’s current modus operandi.

“It’s okay to challenge the status quo and speak up if things are not working,” she said.

Sometimes it is hard to agree on the problem, let alone the solution. One participant spoke of a biotech–Big Pharma partnership in which the former felt the partnership model needed to change but the latter disagreed with the biotech’s risk assessment. In this case, the large company had considerable leverage despite its smaller partner’s protestations.

In tech, partners could stop taking your calls and selling your offering over time; software and hardware vendors and services companies have many choices in terms of whom to partner with in any given technology segment, big or small. Differences can crop up over one partner’s speed (or lack thereof), cost and profit sharing, risk tolerance, coopetition, or differences in opinion on how to tackle a particular account, among many other potential disagreements. One channel sales specialist said it is time to build on the relationship that was formed in the beginning of the partnership and have a tough conversation with the internal partner relationship manager to assess whether and how the problems can be fixed or if the companies simply need to dissolve the alliance.

“Sit back and listen to the problems the partner is having. Listen to them and discuss in detail about what you can do better,” she said.

The Fishbone and the Five Whys

There are a few tools that can come in handy to deescalate tensions. Some attendees utilized root-cause analyses, a systematic method of uncovering the true source of problems through individual and group discussions between stakeholders. Another specifically mentioned the “five whys” method, where you answer one question and then subsequently drill down by asking why that answer came to be until you reach the root cause, which usually comes after the fifth question.

That same person also proffered the “fishbone diagram,” which is sometimes used in concert with the five whys, as a potential resource. In the fishbone diagram, a problem statement is inserted at the head of a “fish,” while the possible problems or causes are filled out in boxes at the end of the “ribs” of each fish. Health checks are a more traditional way to obtain the partner’s feedback, and arguably a more constructive one because the anonymous nature of the responses allow team members to provide unvarnished opinions.

In another breakout session facilitated by John Dahlquist, senior director of alliance management at Takeda, it was noted that anonymity could be key to diagnosing issues; problems bubbling up behind the scenes at the partner organization won’t necessarily come up in regular governance and special task force meetings. Alliance managers must add detective work to the long list of skills required to navigate these situations, including but not limited to compassion, communication, facilitation, conflict resolution, negotiation, and diplomacy.

Take It to the Top? It Depends

Once problems have been identified, the question becomes whether or not to escalate the dispute to higher-ranking officials to adjudicate. Like many things in alliance management, the answer is, it depends. Some participants across the breakout groups had seen instances where escalation helped cut to the chase and get to a resolution quickly, but even some of those people acknowledged that there is a negative connotation to escalation.

“You don’t want to escalate everything,” said one attendee. 

Tread Lightly, but Not on the Customer

Although it’s important to be decisive and persistent in resolving issues, alliance managers still need to tread lightly. They must be careful not to make individuals feel like they are being attacked or to put them on the defensive, which could prompt them to point fingers. They might have to have tough conversations with folks who feel they can fix the problem on their own without formal intervention when it might not be realistic. Alliance managers also have to take precautions to shield customers, patients, and other beneficiaries of an alliance from any impact from clashes between partners.

At the end of the day, alliance managers lay the groundwork to defuse disagreements well before they arise, according to breakout facilitator John Barbadoro, senior consultant for Vantage Partners.

“You need to have a shared set of values that can bring you back on track when things go astray. Reset by focusing on how we are working together,” he said.