Baptism of Fire! Supporting partnership working in Northern Ireland

Over the past five years CollaborationNI has supported over 1,300 organisations in Northern Ireland to work in partnership.

We have supported the development of partnerships in almost every sub-sector of the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland including the development of cross-sectoral partnerships.We have developed a support programme that works.  Yet to be honest - our introduction to supporting partnership working was very much a baptism of fire. 

The CollaborationNI programme was launched in March 2011 and from the very start there was a great deal of interest in the service.

An exciting opportunity

Only a couple of weeks after the launch, we were asked by a funder to support the development of a formal consortium which would deliver co-ordinated services across Northern Ireland - and which would provide better services to beneficiaries. It was to be a consortium made up of all the main players in this particular voluntary and community sub-sector. 

There had been a pre meeting with one of the partners - who explained that the partnership had been formed as a result of a change in policy direction. The policy direction was now very much to have just one co-ordinated service. This all seemed very logical and sensible.

We had been supplied with visioning documents, plans as to how a new co-ordinated service would work and details of all the partners who would make up this exciting new partnership. 
With this information in hand, we enthusiastically prepared a session entitled: ‘How to build an Effective Consortium’. 

From visioning documents to PowerPoint

We arrived at our first meeting, in a dusty conference room of an even dustier hotel, armed with our PowerPoint presentation. We had slides and some really impressive diagrams. We knew all about corporate structures and had lots of ideas about how the new consortium might work.

We were also very much looking forward to meeting the individual leaders who were so committed to driving forward the vision which had been so eloquently set out in the visioning documents. 

The reality of the meeting

We entered the room and found approximately twenty people sat around the table.  Following some pleasant introductions we started our session. Initially, as we described the options available, the room was relatively quiet.  However as we asked for thoughts on these options, it descended into what could euphemistically be described as a ‘full and frank exchange of ideas’. In short, there was an extremely heated debate. When some ‘partners’ spoke, others would simply turn away and, in one case, a participant actually chose to pointedly get up and leave the table rather than have to listen to another person’s argument. 

We would like to think we were like swans that day – calm and graceful above the surface whilst, below the metaphorical waterline we were frantically paddling away in a mad panic. Looking back at that moment five years later, we are sure that fear was actually written all over our faces – and that we looked, as we felt, totally out of our depth. 

It was one of those occasions when people say they would have liked the floor to swallow us up- but as that was not going to happen, we had no choice but to stay at the table. 

Little did we know that what happened that day would go on to inform much of the next five years of our work.

Fail early and often

They do say that you should fail early and fail often – because we all learn far more from failure than we ever do from success. The meeting felt like a failure. We didn’t even get to the end of our treasured PowerPoint presentation. But perhaps we didn’t fail that day. Nobody walked out. Difficult issues were debated. People had the opportunity to feel listened to. And we did secure agreement that they would meet again. The feedback on our feedback forms was surprisingly positive. Almost surreally so.    

Certainly we learned a great deal about how to succeed at partnership working. We learned that even when people fully accept that change needs to happen, they still need time and space to buy into the transition process.
The vision document we had read was just a document. Probably written by someone else – a consultant perhaps. Visioning document or no visioning document, the people around that particular table were simply not ready to buy in to this new way of working. 

Stay at the table

So this is what we did:

• We stayed at the table
• We scrapped the PowerPoint
• We listened to the issues and sought to bring unspoken issues to the surface
• We sought buy-in to explore new ways of working
• We acknowledged that it was going to be hard
• We supported them through the process
• We assisted them to form an effective partnership to deliver the co-ordinated services (some time later)

We have learned that so much happens at the table - and indeed part of the challenge is to stay at that table.

Partnership working is difficult. Sometimes, in order to stay at that table, you may need independent support from an honest broker- someone who has been at that table, and other tables like it, many times before.


Leeann Kelly and Andrew Talbot


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