“Conductor of the Orchestra”: How Alliance Managers Harmonize Organizational Complexity
In “matrix organizations”—those working on multiple, complex, often large-scale projects with at least two chains of command—building and maintaining the alliance function “all comes down to leadership.” That was one of the key observations made by Lucinda Warren, who delivered the opening day keynote address at the ASAP European Alliance Summit on Nov. 14 in Amsterdam.
Warren, vice president of business development, neuroscience, Janssen Business Development at Johnson & Johnson Innovation and also an alliance management veteran, called her talk “Leadership and Skills in Managing an Alliance in a Matrix Organization.” In an enterprise running multiple projects across multiple functions—and with multiple partners—who will tie it all together? Who will serve as the voice of the alliance and be the advocate for the partner, as needed?
The alliance manager, of course.
Some of the challenges, issues, and important insights that come with matrix organizations and their increased partnering complexity, Warren said, include:
- “Alliances are not projects,” and thus alliance managers are not project managers, although the roles are often confused.
- Alliance managers create value; project managers deliver value.
- Alliance management is critical throughout the product or asset life cycle; project management is critical at certain specific points.
- When resources are stretched, alliance functions don’t always solve for it.
- Alliance management is one function, but real collaboration requires the coordination and participation of multiple experts from various functions.
- Who are the decision makers going to be? This question must be looked at from both internal and external perspectives.
- Alliance management proactively identifies potential risks and seeks to mitigate them.
Warren further noted that having an alliance creates a sort of alliance “tax” on organizations—since all decisions and most information must be shared with the partner, it can double or even triple the time it takes to perform many actions, which can increase costs. Alliance managers need to help navigate these activities and act as the “conductor of the orchestra”: being familiar with all the instruments that are playing and making sure that each one—and all of them together—is “tuned perfectly for the ear.” They don’t know how to do each job, but (to switch to an electrical metaphor) they know which circuits need to be reset.
They need to navigate not only their own organization but also the partner’s—otherwise they (and others) will be operating in a “black box” in which the partner’s challenges and motivations may remain unknown and/or misunderstood. Communication is thus imperative—about timelines, how decisions are made, how governance is to be conducted, etc.
Which brings us to the critical role of leadership. As Warren said, “The value of the alliance function needs to be woven into the fabric of the organization.” Thus alliances and alliance management must be integrated into business strategy and operations—with full senior leadership backing and engagement. With increasing reliance by matrix organizations on partnering, everything that is done influences future collaborations and thus should be tilted toward attracting more partners going forward. Benchmarks must be established, with the goal of being a more successful partner.
Warren said that alliance management is “more important than ever before,” and that the alliance manager is often “the CEO’s right-hand man,” the one who knows everything that’s happening, internally across functions and at the partner organization. Since these functions—and partners—typically speak different languages, the alliance manager’s job is to bridge divides for a common goal, bring everyone together in an unbiased and objective way, and not take sides.
Or not take sides, except as the advocate for and representative of the alliance itself. “If we’re successful, people forget there’s a collaboration,” Warren concluded. “No fires are burning, nobody’s getting sued. It’s a thankless job, but [when done well] people seek you out as an expert who can triage. You’re the driver of organizational capability enhancement.”