Defusing the Combat Zone

Posted By: Jon Lavietes Member Resources, ASAP Roundtables,

Conflict is a matter of “when,” not “if,” over the course of steering a collaboration between two or more organizations. Conflict management is thus an inevitable part of the job, which is why ASAP members perpetually ruminate on the subject. It has been the focus of the ASAP Global Alliance Summit Leadership Forum and was indirectly a key component of last month’s roundtable on how to rescue an alliance that has gone off the rails—and that’s only the last few months! It will always be a presence, which is why we’ll continue to dissect and explore it. 

“Conflict is something natural,” said Stefanie Schubert, CA-AM, PhD, professor of economics at SRH University Heidelberg, one of the breakout session moderators during ASAP’s June roundtable, “Combat Zone: Conflict Resolution and the Creation of Alliance Value.”

Take a Stab at Compromising

The five breakout groups collectively covered plenty of ground, surfacing an assortment of causes of and mechanisms for dealing with flareups between partners. A participant in Schubert’s discussion noted that the signs of a partner that’s not willing to compromise are often plain to see. 

“Taking, taking, taking from the other party or giving, giving, and giving to the other party. That won’t work long term,” he said, before adding that sometimes it is better for the long-term relationship to concede on an issue in the short term—give a favor to net a return down the line. 

Compromise is the first, and most crucial, step to conflict resolution. 

“If it doesn’t work, it leads to parties drawing their swords,” said another ASAP member in Schubert’s group. 

It’s Nothing Personal, Just Data  

Others proffered keeping the common goal in mind, acknowledging when it is the organizations—not the individuals—disagreeing (i.e., it’s nothing personal), and being transparent about motivations as mechanisms for preventing disagreements from mushrooming into something more volatile. 

A strong governance structure can also serve as the hose that puts out the fire, but it helps to “try to solve [issues] at the lowest level possible,” said one contributor. Another spoke of an instance where his organization provided hard data to illustrate that a joint plan likely wouldn’t work. 

Seeing the Roles Clearly…

In Julio Ampuero’s breakout session, it was noted that it is possible to lay the groundwork for managing disputes before they arise. 

“Are the roles and responsibilities clear internally as a team to be able to manage through the discussions and potentially the conflict?” said Ampuero, vice president of strategic alliances at NORESCO, summarizing the consensus of his group’s debate: If you clarify who does what, the knowledge of your own hierarchy and subject matter expertise helps determine how to go about resolving differences—and who gets tapped for which role.

Ampuero also issued an important reminder: “Conflict is not bad; it’s just natural, and it gives us the opportunity to have a lot of innovation.”  

Dealing with the Unforeseeable

Meanwhile, in the virtual breakout room led by Nick Palmer, partner and director of North America for BTD Consulting, a debate was forming about “the foreseeable versus the unforeseeable,” as Palmer put it.

“During negotiation and due diligence, you should be looking and listening for some of the soft spots that people are avoiding,” said Palmer. 

Another participant stressed that alliance managers run the risk of missing warning signs if they are too bogged down in administrative work. 

“You need to ensure that you have the time and the mental focus [for misalignment on critical issues] rather than be operationally too busy and not spotting things when they go wrong,” he said. 

Palmer’s group also recommended regular formal health checks as a means to “surface potential or real issues at a time when they could be readily resolved,” said the same participant. 

It was suggested in Palmer’s confab that alliance teams can take a page out of “German or Dutch culture,” which lends itself to being more outspoken, in order to have the tough conversations sooner than later.  

“The more you are able to establish such a culture, you might be more able to actually surface conflict early on and then operate to resolve them rather than being more hidden,” said one attendee. “As long as both parties talk about conflict, that can be quite constructive and [help] surface new opportunities to find good compromises.” 

Trust Flows from the Heart

In a discussion led by Caroline Rader, director of manufacturing business alliance management at Merck, it was noted that it’s not only critical to maintain trust among the teams, it’s equally important to “nurture it between the alliance managers themselves.” Outside of the alliance professionals, “a robust stakeholder management plan” also goes a long way in working through conflict in each of the partner organizations. 

Rader’s group focused on the “personal connection,” namely “active listening” and “leading with your heart,” when moving to assuage a partner’s concerns. It’s not that process and procedure aren’t important, they just work better when parties approach dissent with empathy.

“Structure things to have the documented flow, then get down to a personal level to uncover issues that are critical to getting through conflict and avoiding it,” said Rader. 

Mandated Reporters: Key Stakeholders Manage Conflict Through Governance 

In an interesting contrast, Lori Tomassian, director of oncology and business development and licensing at Novartis, relayed a sentiment from her breakout session that some of the administrative aspects of alliance management could help surface potential clashes. 

“Make sure early on that [you] have proactive and joint reporting through standard governance. If you do that reporting more frequently and regularly, that will proactively bring up any conflict and also make it that much easier to have the discussion and that dialogue when conflict arises,” said Tomassian. 

Tomassian also mentioned that while many reflexively turn to the partnership contract for resolution guidance, it’s not necessarily the best option. Rather, her group found success doing some reconnaissance on their own line-of-business managers and division leaders to “map out who is responsible and accountable for decision making internally.” That enables alliance managers to incorporate the right people into the process at the right time when things look like they might get heated.   

“Having that internal consensus, understanding who your stakeholders are, and driving that decision is important in an alliance,” said Tomassian.

Slow Down, Listen, and Learn from Your Partner 

Finally, Nancy Ridge, president and founder of Ridge Innovative, and her breakout team found that alliances get off on the wrong foot when “you don’t necessarily have that alignment on the front end with BD who is bringing relationships in” and executive sponsorship is not in place. That group also delved deep into the dynamics between large companies and their smaller startup and biotech partners. While it is easy to lament the large organization’s relatively plodding pace, its snail’s tempo can sometimes help to slow the smaller partner down so that its stakeholders listen to the larger organization’s feedback and think things through.   

“Even if they have aligned goals, they may have conflicting styles,” said Ridge. “[That can] really help [small partners] to take a measured approach.” 

One participant in Ridge’s discussion also brought up the point that conflict provides an opportunity to learn from your partner if you have trust and an “honest rapport.” 

“You can talk about why you do things differently [and how] that can create innovation,” said Ridge, recapping that individual’s point.