Why Do Partnerships Fail, and How Can I Build Successful Ones?
Here’s a mind-blowing fact about the human brain for you: despite being made up of roughly 73% water, there are over 86 billion neurons in your brain that are traveling around 150 miles per hour in order to allow you to understand the sentence you’re reading this very moment. While we’re on the topic, I want to make a quick side-note. You know that claim that humans only use some 10% of their brain, and that being able to unlock the remaining 90% is some mythical trick to obtain superhuman abilities? Well, that’s a lie. We humans use most of our brains, most of the time. Sorry, Nietzsche.
The human brain and the mind’s inner workings are as fascinating to study as they are important to the evolution of human beings (and really all living things) in general. Part of that is due to the stark difference between the tangible physical organ that is “the brain” and the ethereal, quasi-mythical realm that is “the mind.” Although the study of the brain and nervous system is nothing new, the medical discipline of neuroscience is. Ancient Egyptians were removing brains from mummies as far back as 1,700 BCE, but J. E. Purkinje only became the first person to describe a neuron in 1837 – three and a half thousand years later – and the first MRI scan of a human brain wouldn’t happen until another 140 years later, in 1977. But over the past 40 years, we have learned more about the neurobiology of the human mind than we arguably have in all recorded history. Some of the most important advances in understanding neurobiology have been those related to how our brains regulate and comprehend emotion and cognition, especially as it relates to the social behavior of humans.
This is likely not the first time you have read or heard this: humans are inherently social creatures. But we’re not alone. Even in animal species with more primitive brains, or those with no nervous system at all, social behavior has still been observed albeit at a more basic level. Simon N. Young at Montreal’s McGill University’s Psychiatry Department says, “different animals, including humans, share many of the same types of…affiliation and aggression, the establishment of hierarchy and territoriality.” The social behavior of humans is more complex and more important to our overall health and survival. This is not surprising when you consider our species’ evolutionary path. Long before Homo Sapiens (Latin for “thinking man”) came into being, our primitive ancestors found safety in numbers. Not only for day-to-day survival, but in hunting and gathering food, raising children, and creating a sustainable structure around which those numbers could grow and thrive. The complex evolution of affiliation and aggression as it relates to the establishment of hierarchy and territory, as Young mentioned, is what aided our more recent ancestors in establishing more “tribal” societies, which in turn allowed humans to not only survive but thrive under what could be described and summarized as early partnerships.
At the same time, Young says, humans who possessed some kind of psychiatric disruption (e.g., borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia) likewise saw a disruption to what was considered “normal” social behavior. Despite our advancements in neuroscience and neurobiology, those who possess psychiatric disruptions akin to these in some societies are still labeled as “anti-social” at best, or simply “crazy” at worst. In history, they were not able to conform to “normal” neurobiological behavior and therefore were largely seen as “outsiders” to society – solitary outliers unable to mold into the collective partnership of the “tribe”. Even in modern society, this stigma still unfortunately persists today. Think back to your childhood – was there a specific neighbor somewhere nearby who others described using words like “hermit,” “crazy,” or something similar? Or perhaps your town had a local legend about the “crazy person” who lived by themselves on the edge or just outside of town, on the outskirts of society? If not, you probably need to check your socio-economic privilege (or maybe I just need to stop reading so many Stephen King stories).
But this scenario begs the question: why were, and in some cases still are, people who exhibit or exhibited disruptive neuro behavior outcasted from the proverbial partnership of society? What caused their proverbial “partnership” (read: involvement) with “the tribe” (society) fail, where others succeeded? Sometimes it is a lucid voluntary action to remove oneself from the partnership, others it is a communal agreement to exile an outlier.
Now I’m going to take these analogies one step further and ask you to view them through the lens of contemporary business interaction. The “tribe” in this case can be viewed either as a singular business entity or the partnership itself. Just as ancient humans formed tribes for survival, so too do business owners form partnerships. It may take years for one person to build a sustainable home by hand, but the tribe as a collective has been able to construct empires. Just as one business owner may possess strengths in sales or finance, they may seek to form partnerships with another whose strengths in operations or manufacturing pools their combined skills, knowledge, and talent to create a more sustainable venture with more rewarding payoffs (i.e., the “empire”).
Unfortunately, as literally any history book ever written will tell you, empires eventually fall. They may explode and crumble overnight, or slowly diminish into a shade of their former glory. With the same misfortune, so too do many business partnerships, many before they even have a chance to get started. Yet partnerships – in some form – are still created every single day. Despite the majority of these partnerships ultimately failing, a good number of them go on to succeed, even if only for a brief time until another newer and greater one forms.
Ironically, a large portion of the reasons behind mutual success, or failure, is the same:
Before you solidify your partnership, you and your partner(s) will need to set aside enough time to map out a plan for the partnership itself as its own autonomous entity, as if it were a business in and of itself. What is the purpose of this partnership? Why is this partnership being formed in the first place, and why now? What is the endgame of the partnership and how will that vision be achieved?
Without a definitive purpose behind your partnership, there will be no solid foundation upon which to build. Where is your business today, and where do you want it to be a year, or two years, or three to five or more years from now? Does your partner share this same vision with you? If they do – great! You both have an aligned vision for success, and (theoretically) should both work just as hard as one another to see your vision come to fruition. If you and your partner do NOT share an aligned vision for the partnership, both of you are doomed from the start. At the same time, you and your partner will need to revisit this original vision for your partnership to ensure it maintains relevance in the future.
This may seem like a “no-brainer” but is a question that needs to be continually asked regardless: does the partnership in question make sense to form? If you own a bar or restaurant and are looking to partner with someone who produces eco-friendly and bio-degradable utensils, straws, or plates, the answer is: it depends. What type of bar or restaurant do you operate? If you want to deliver customers a higher-end experience on par with fine dining, the chances are that your customers will not take kindly to being served with “cheap” materials. They are paying you for a prime experience. However, if your bar or restaurant is more of a Gastropub, you should absolutely consider this partnership! Advertise the heck out of it. Post about it on your social media accounts ten times a day to bring in more business to your earth-conscious organization, and give your customers notice that you will be making the switch in order to reduce your (and their) impact on non-degradable waste.
DELIVERY OF RESULTS:
If you are a small business owner, you are going to naturally want to partner with a business that is more successful and larger than your own. While you can partner with a business that’s smaller or not as successful as your own, it means that you will be carrying the brunt of the weight while also trying to gain enough of your business’s own traction to become situated in your market. While not unanimous, this is more often than not a recipe for disaster. Your smaller partner will expect you to carry them AND yourself to success. This is not to say that when partnering with a business larger or more successful than yours you should expect them to pull more weight than you. This ties-in with mapping out the plan of the partnership before the partnership itself is even formed: what is expected from each party, how will each party be measured, and what is the expected mutual outcome? Make sure you and your partner clearly define this well beforehand to generate maximum mutual payoff.
Similar to “Aligned Products/Services,” your business partner should be targeting a similar customer demographic to your own. Let’s offer a hypothetical example where your target market is working mothers between the ages of 18-35, but your business partner’s target market is single fathers ages 21-40. Do your products or services still align with both of these demographics? Chances are, probably not. In that case, you need to be ok with walking away from the partnership in order to form one with a business better suited to your target market. While the payoff for the partnership is ultimately long-term, there still needs to be some initial mutual benefit for the partnership to be attractive in the first place. Otherwise, you’re simply wasting your – and your partner’s – time.
This may seem like another “no-brainer,” but still a question that you need to ask yourself in the early stages of drafting the plan for your partnership: is your business partner in a location that makes sense for you? If your partner is hundreds or thousands of miles away but located in a geographical market you know is a desirable location for your product or service, will long travel times or time zone differences between your two locations cause more strain than benefit? The best partnerships are ones that possess the least strain between parties involved. If geography is, or could become a hindrance for the partnership’s payoff, it might be best to look elsewhere.
We already mentioned Mutual Delivery, but what about Mutual Accountability? If goals and responsibilities for the partnership and those involved are not clearly-defined beforehand, you will end up with one assertive party making all of the major decisions resenting the non-assertive party for its lack of involvement, and the non-assertive party resenting the assertive party for being too demanding and not consulting deliverable actions with them. This will lead to an inevitable breakdown of the team, turning your partnership into a fiefdom where each party despises the other for reasons that could have been prevented before the partnership even began.
If you haven’t already, now would be a great time to read out the previous blog post, “WTFAQ is Purpose-Driven-Profit?” Don’t worry, we’ll be here when you get back.
When you and your partner are mapping out the plan for the partnership and who will be accountable for which responsibilities, you cannot (I can’t stress this enough: YOU CAN NOT) skip out on the financial projections and divided rewards of the partnership. Money is so commonly viewed as a taboo topic of conversation, and even in business many managers and employees avoid the topic until it’s time to punish someone or close shop for good. Before any revenue can be made, you and your business partner need to clearly define how it will be made. Is the financial structure of the partnership geared strictly towards financial rewards from the top-down, or is it geared towards generating revenue for a greater purpose? At the same time, does revenue rely on a primary “Rainmaker” for generation, or does the partnership generate revenue from several different angles? If your partnership relies on the former, there’s a high probability that your Rainmaker will be in a position to hold the partnership hostage in the future or worse: quit and leave your pipeline dried up.
Whether to the business/partnership/entity itself or to one another, loyalty is a must-have for any partnership to succeed. It allows us to adequately care for the all-encompassing well-being of one another and the structure partners seek to build together. Developing an established feeling of camaraderie will foster loyalty, allowing it to grow between partners, whereas a lack of camaraderie and loyalty can breed disdain – or worse, paranoia – towards those who we are supposed to be working with together each day to build a better and more sustainable entity.
If loyalty, and the trust that comes with it, are lacking in your partnership, it will only be a matter of time before the partnership dissolves by one partner leaving to seek a more attractive opportunity elsewhere. Just as tribal societies and empires in our history have dissolved due to a lack of loyalty in those expected to lead, business partnerships will evaporate if those negatively impacted by them are unable to benefit from them.
To wrap up today’s post and pseudo-lecture on neuroscience: remember that the entire purpose of any partnership is mutual benefit and success. There are no one-way streets here. Before anything is set in stone, you and your partner(s) need to establish and agree upon the purpose, vision and desired results of the partnership and what steps will be taken by each party to generate those results. Then, do the same for how projected rewards will be split, and what will happen if there are any hiccups or roadblocks that occur during the process along the way. Each of you is there to combine your talents in an effort to make the workload mutually less difficult. If this ends up not being the case – purposely or not – there needs to be a protocol in place on what actions will be done to make the cleanest break possible.
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If you want more information on how to create the best partnership for your business, our team recommends the following reads:
Multipliers: How The Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter by Liz Wiseman Pitch Anything: An Innovative Method for Presenting, Persuading, and Winning The Deal by Oren Klaff Selling to Big Companies by Jill Konrath On Negotiation and On Communication by Harvard Business Review Press Get A Grip by Gino Wickman & Mike Paton
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