A Business Alliance is Not a Marriage – Part 1

A Business Alliance is Not a Marriage More Like Serious Dating… with a Prenup


“What kind of team building can we do to get both sides of our business alliance working better together?” “How can we get them to trust us more?” “As partners, shouldn’t we be looking at the balance between risk and reward equally?”

These are just a few of the questions I’ve been asked in recent months. The answers, in my not to be popular opinion, are clear, succinct, and a wee bit blunt. Hang in there though. The recommendations that follow can make this pill easier to swallow. First, let’s debunk a few myths commonly associated with an alliance.

This is Part 1 of a 4-part series: Part 1 ● Part 2 ● Part 3 ● Part 4

First, a business alliance is not a team. An alliance is comprised of two completely different organizations with independent objectives, diverse values and differing results requiring an organization’s specific reckoning- ergo, by definition, it is NOT a team.

Secondly, trust, the sought after metric in alliances doesn’t happen just because it’s the thing to do in a pop culture society. It’s been my experience that the TRUST we speak of so loosely in our alliance circles comes about from a deeply mutual respect based on congruity of values stemming from shared experiences. One begats the other, and the begetting is in sequence. If you’re familiar with the Book of Numbers in the Bible, you’ll notice an awful lot of begats. Hezekial begat Jebediah, Jebediah begat Abner who begat… well you get the gist. Trust is similar. It too requires a lot of begats beginning with a fair amount of time spent, shared experiences, congruity of values, mutual respect with an eventual culmination in trust.

It should come as no surprise then that when complete strangers begin surveying one another in the first few moments of their alliance, the desired level of trust is less than stellar.

Finally, an alliance is not a partnership. Why would it be? There’s rarely a perceived equity between risk, investment and reward. One party is typically bigger than the other. One usually has more to win or lose than the other. There is no real equity, thus no real partnership. When people behave as though there are emotional conclusions and context as to how the other party should view and regard initiatives in the alliance they are often led down a path in which communication and understanding breaks down. If you get right down to it, the complaints arising from this misconception tend to look and sound an awful lot like a marriage counseling session.

In short, alliances aren’t teams. They’re not partnerships and they’re certainly not a marriage. What are they? They’re projects.

Teams imply adherence to pre-established and organizationally linked mission, vision, goals, rewards, recognition and risks. Projects don’t.

Marriage partnerships imply equality. Projects don’t.

Alliances are projects, in the purest and simplest definition of the term. If we could just cut through some of the rhetoric out there, reduce the number of surveys assessing feelings, and re-assign the folks pushing equality and camaraderie at any cost, we’d have more than just a handful of alliances to point to as the successful “Come on! You can do it!”” benchmark.

Framing alliance efforts as a project, forces both sides of the alliance to work from an objective perspective versus a subjective one. Project management tenets constructively minimize political or emotional undercurrents which can often derail collaboration efforts.

When approached as a project, alliance efforts can move a group of non-partners into a collaborative effort.

Still, for all of you out there who remain addicted to the concept of teams and equitable marriage partnerships within the alliance movement, here’s my version of a 12 Step Program to help you on your way to Alliance Management Recovery:

Step 1. Make the language of the relationship project based. Take out all language used amongst yourselves (and which in turn may be found in supporting documents) referring to teams, partnerships and equality in the alliance. Replace it with a new relationship language thus realigning the meaning. Terms such as the following will go a long way to resetting expectations: Collaborative project Project goals Project Schedule Project Budget Project Metrics …. You get the point.

What to do? Start with your own internal reference pieces. Create a project charter as a starting document to reset terminology and provide collaboration parameters. See Step 2.

Step 2. Create a Project Prenup. Via the prenup (or project charter), structure is given to the gooey nature of working with other people across organizations. In it you will find items such as: Purpose Deliverables Assumptions Challenges/Questions Project Scope (What’s In… What’s Out) Constraints Decision Makers (Sponsors) Team Member Roles and Assignment Risk Mitigation

A project charter clearly spells out the significant expectations and rules for managing key endeavors of the alliance. In it, both parties review and agree prior to the project starting. To move things along, you’ll want to create a prenup for each key project associated with the alliance, which leads us to Step 3.

What to do? Craft a written project charter and forward along to your counterparts. Reference it throughout your efforts. The charter can act as a constructive contract directing collaboration efforts.

Step 3. Divide the Alliance Pie into Bite Size Pieces. If you can segment some of the larger portions of the alliance into very specific project parameters, you’re better able to manage, coordinate, measure and monitor. It’s like the old adage of divide and conquer, only instead of Roman swords, you’re using project charters, RACI Charts and Critical Path Crashing Schedules.

This also gives you an opportunity to pilot certain project practices in one area of the alliance before rolling out to other areas. By segmenting the alliance into tangible project scenarios, you can minimize the potential for serious wrinkles (isolated into one project area). Before the entire alliance applecart is upset, you’ve got a remedy in hand and best practices discovered from your pilot, all of which can then be transplanted.

What to do? Look at the project as a whole. Where are there logical project parameters? Commercialization? Domestic vs. International Distribution? Product Marketing?

This is Part 1 of a 4-part series: Part 1 ● Part 2 ● Part 3 ● Part 4

The 12 Step Program to Alliance Management Recovery may not be for everyone, but we think the tenets have some merit. At the very least, it should put managing alliances in a healthier perspective.

Following a few of these steps should put you in true business alliance dating form in no time.