To assist in building more robust and successful alliances, it seems worth considering what it takes to ‘animate’ them. What might be the key characteristics of a good animator for what is a complex role requiring multiple skills and experience? Here is a preliminary list to consider:

  • energy / enthusiasm
  • high-level facilitation / listening / speaking / synthesis skills
  • flexibility of thinking
  • understanding of group dynamics
  • patience / persistence
  • efficiency / rigour / reliability
  • capacity to ‘hold space’
  • trust-worthiness
  • confidence in challenging poor behaviours or fixed mental models and…
  • a good sense of humour

And there is something else that a good animator has: that is the courage, capacity and willingness to carry both risk and anxiety on behalf of the Alliance they are seeking to animate:

“Perhaps it is fair to describe the core team at Start Network as both ‘warriors’ and ‘worriers’ at one and the same time. This is to be expected, since warrior-ing and worrying are characteristics of many of those operating as partnership / collaboration brokers – whether as individuals or as a team. Studies suggest that those on the periphery of complex collaborative initiatives often have very little notion of what it really takes to manage the process well and, above all, what it takes to hold one’s nerve under considerable and sustained pressure from a number of directions.”

[1] Ibid

A further work in progress is a list of 12 suggestions for how to ‘animate’ Alliances:

12 Suggestions for How to Animate Alliances

1. Membership
  • Clarify how an organisation becomes a member, who decides and on what basis they do so
  • Push members to share their specific (underlying as well as explicit) interests in being part of the Alliance
  • Find ways to encourage members to be clear about any of their organisation’s ‘non-negotiables’
2. Model
  • Establish the minimum core requirements needed to provide reassurance to    members (bearing in mind these may be different) in how the Alliance will operate
  • Suggest that the appropriate model is ‘grown’ over time, as Alliance members become clearer about what will serve both their interests and the mission best
  • Help members to arrive at a good balance between ‘control’ (in exercising due diligence) and ‘flexibility’ (to enable innovation)
3. Mission
  • Decide whether the Alliance can establish one over-riding mission and / or whether it can embrace several
  • Explore the diverse aspirations and expectations of Alliance members and agree how this diversity will be acknowledged, appreciated and managed
  • Test out the levels of discomfort or challenge that different Alliance members can tolerate with regard to a mission that challenges the status quo
4. Assumptions
  • Ask questions about what members assume about each other – and give them a chance to find out whether (or not) their assumptions are correct
  • Create a culture of curiosity in Alliance meetings and communications to support a ‘de-layering’ of assumptions and pre-conceptions
  • Re-visit members’ views about what constitutes the ‘added-value’ of the Alliance – as compared to acting alone – on a regular basis
5. Actions
  • Define the role and remit of those responsible for coordinating / managing / guiding the Alliance
  • Ascertain which Alliance members are willing to step up / go the ‘extra mile’ to assist in brokering / animating / shaping the work on behalf of the group
  • Consider how best to support and acknowledge the animator(s) so their efforts get positive reinforcement or timely challenge (whichever is appropriate!)
6. Accountability
  • Figure out, in this relatively loose model, what accountability actually means
  • Make mutual accountability a central tenet of alliance-building
  • Re-frame accountability as a way to challenge and change practice for the better rather than simply a mechanism for judging performance
7. Permission
  • Establish what authority those coordinating / managing the Alliance have
  • Agree which types of decision can (and cannot) be taken by member representatives on behalf of their organisations
  • Clarify who can act or speak on behalf of the Alliance
8. Protocols
  • Question the deployment of any protocols and procedures that fail to support the Alliance as an experiment (i.e. those that settle for ‘business as usual’)
  • Consider how mechanisms and systems can best be co-created in ways that are fit for the aims and purpose of the Alliance
  • Commit to trialling and testing out new approaches until they feel right
9. Processes
  • Invest the necessary time to evolve the best way of working together and build further capacity for collaboration where it is needed
  • Create a culture of inclusion, openness, respect so that questions / challenges about the Alliance or the behaviour of any of its members can be addressed frankly
  • Give space for the unexpected and encourage Alliance members to seize new opportunities
10. Risk
  • Understand what constitutes an acceptable level of risk for Alliance members
  • Explore where confidence / courage needs to be built to push for change
  • Decide in what circumstances it is better to lose an Alliance member (or even to discontinue the Alliance) rather than continue with an arrangement that is antagonistic or adding little value
11. Reward
  • Consider the ‘return on investment’ sought by each member of the Alliance
  • Assess the intangible (i.e. influence) as well as tangible (i.e. project results) outcomes as they apply to the members as well as to other stakeholders / beneficiaries (if different)
  • Regularly check out how far and in what ways members are engaged / satisfied with the Alliance
12. Results
  • Ensure that the Alliance is task and target focused (and not drowning in processes and protocols that do not add value)
  • Explore whether members agree on what ‘success’ looks like in terms of evaluating the Alliance’s activities and impact
  • Take full account of how other key stakeholders and beneficiaries of the Alliance view its activities and impact

Are these ‘tips’ useful?

What needs challenging?

Do you have better suggestions to help strengthening Alliances?