Winning the Business

Positives, Negatives of Partnerships

When and why to seek strategic business partnerships

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You have all been there. The draft RFP is out, or you see that juicy contract is expiring in six months and you know you could grab that work. But you have this nagging feeling that you could be more competitive if you team up with someone. Other times, you are the incumbent and may feel a little uneasy because of a weakness. Partnerships come with trade-offs between being autonomous and presenting the strongest team.

Partnership Benefits

What are the upsides to partnering?

  1. A partnership can provide access to a new office or contract mechanism. How many times have you seen work that you cannot access because of a lack of client intimacy or because you are not on the right mechanism? Going into a new office or agency is a steep challenge, and it can be a waste of precious development resources if you don’t know the lay of the land. The right partnership opens doors.
  2. Spread the workload. Mounting a large response may stretch your team thin, weakening your ability to produce a quality offer. Teaming up offers a few more hands. Plus, you get an injection of different ideas from another firm.
  3. Get needed past performance/staff expertise. You have probably read up on digital marketing, and your nephew has 12,000 followers on his Twitter feed, so surely you can make the case that you can do the dissemination task. The truth is that many times we don’t know what we don’t know, and the client will see through all our flowery language and nail us for our ignorance. Someone on your team needs to fearlessly evaluate what you do well and what you do not do well, so you can shore up your weaknesses.

Partnerships should be entered into thoughtfully and carefully, with plenty of open communication, documentation, and a generous dollop of benefit of the doubt on both sides.

Partnership Drawbacks

On the other hand, partnerships have their downsides.

  1. You lose workshare. The senior leadership team invariably hates to give away a piece of the pie—even those parts that are a stretch for the company. After all, “How will we grow the company if we don’t take chances and expand from our core capabilities?” The answer to that question is, “Would you rather have 60 percent of something or 100 percent of nothing because you did not submit a strong response?”
  2. Working with another firm is more hassle. Honestly, all those phone calls and meetings and working with strangers is one big drag. Smart people should be able to just figure out what is needed and get it done more efficiently, right? Deciding to partner means you need to be humble enough to admit you need the help of someone else to win and that they can teach you something new.
  3. You lose control. You don’t get to be king of the proposal when you have partners. They have ideas, needs, and priorities that don’t align perfectly with yours. To get the most out of partnerships and to go as far as you can with your company, you need to be a leader of interdisciplinary and cross-firm teams. That means sacrificing control for the long-term benefits of the partnership.

Partnerships should be entered into thoughtfully and carefully, with plenty of open communication, documentation, and a generous dollop of benefit of the doubt on both sides. Also, please don’t wait until the RFP drops to look for a partner. By that time, you might find a partner but not a winning one. As soon as you have an inkling of what the requirements will be of that coveted RFP, start looking around for the partners you need to round out your team.

Bon chance, mon ami.

Jim Bender is the principal of ZK Development Solutions, a business consulting firm in the Washington, D.C., area. He can be reached at

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