Features: May 19th, 2010

By Stephen Welch.

The new coalition government has attracted many different analogies of what the partnership is like. And there have been lots of opinion pieces as to whether it will wither or prosper. The author looks at the likely success of the partnership in the light of research and the experience of helping organisations collaborate.

Whatever your personal views, the coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats needs to be a partnership that not only works, but survives until the committed new election of 2015. The plans they have laid out for the next few years demand a strong team that works together.

Components of successful collaboration

On the surface there are similarities; many of the Cabinet are from the same social group, even if they don’t socialise. Some commentators have suggested that this might imply there will be enough compatibility to take them through the initial exciting phase and also the challenging times later on when the reality of their stringent cost cutting agenda hits home. Others have even argued that the lack of diversity among the Cabinet may actually help bring them together to set the stage for a successful collaboration.

But it takes more than this. From Hay Group’s research and experience of helping organisations collaborate (sometimes even with their competitors) we see that successful partnerships require three things:

1. Clear goals
2. Shared, interdependent purpose
3. Empathy, trust and tolerance.

Already, all of these elements seem to be present: there are some clear goals, the two parties seem to share a purpose, and there appears to be trust and tolerance. But if we dig beneath the surface we can see some potential bumps and scrapes.

On goals, clarity on the way forward will prevent immediately-conflicting priorities, but if a week is a long time in politics, what of the planned 260-week term of this government? The honeymoon period will end and the 24/7 news agenda will test the coalition’s cohesiveness. How will the team keep control of the agenda and remain focused on the clear goals without being distracted by a resurgent Labour party, external shocks or just the day-to-day minutiae of government? A signed contract between two parties, however good, is not a vision.

We are seeing some clues already, but this clear vision, coupled with a shared, interdependent purpose will be key to long-term success. You might think the interdependence is there: after all it is in both parties interest to stay in power, and the proposed new 55 per cent threshold stops them (barely) holding each other to ransom to a snap election. But it would not take much for a few rebels and ‘Next Labour’ to cause a breakdown.

Depending on each other

So, to succeed, this partnership will need to reinforce the interdependence during the honeymoon phase. This was the key to Hay Group’s work with President Obama and his team in their first few months of office.

Interdependence could happen naturally, and it will be accelerated through empathy, trust and tolerance. They are just getting to know each other and will have to learn how each other works, learning how to deal with each others foibles.

When we look at successful teams, we help them to identify what creates success – what does the team feel like when it is doing its best work? – and help them bottle this elixir. This elixir was obviously present during the political negotiations; let’s understand through behaviour and detailed analysis and interviews with the participants what actually happened (How did they behave?) that made the negotiations so successful. They may want to bottle it and take a draught when the inevitable challenges arise. This is how you maintain success over the long-term: remember the good times and relive them as much as possible.

Delivering results

Successful teams also require performance, results, delivery. Hay Group research shows that there are six elements; three of which we call essentials; the other three enablers.
Essentially a successful team needs, first, a compelling sense of direction. A common enemy is a good start, but not sufficient. Second, getting the right people in the team is obvious but politics is all about … well … politics, so there is not much room for manoeuvre here. But when the inevitable resignations happen, there will be opportunities to change the team, to improve diversity and it will be interesting to see if the Con-LD ratios are fixed. If Mr X, from party A resigns, does he have to be replaced with Ms Y from the same party, even if Mrs Z from party B is palpably perfect? Third, we would expect the team to become a ‘real team’ through team exercises, communion and events. Once a week, round the Cabinet table, in the eye of the media hurricane, is not going to create a ‘real team’.

This is critical, because, as if the government hasn’t got enough on its plate, they now have to knit together two teams who barely know each other, as opposed to a group which has been working together day in and day out. New and unexpected partners (who up until recently were the subject of each others barbs and jokes) suddenly next to each other. Some emotional intelligence and ego maturity will go a long way to getting the new team quickly through the ‘forming and storming’ stage and onto ‘norming and performing’. We see this frequently in our work with merging agencies or companies: combining the top team quickly is key.

Getting enablers in place

The three enablers: structure, supportive context (ie the civil service), and team coaching are also important – especially when it comes to sustainability. These conditions help the team take advantage of the foundation provided by the essentials. The enabling conditions do not need to be there immediately; they can also be strengthened as the team gains experience and authority. But left absent over the long-term and a corrosive atmosphere will start to fester. This is why the best-performing teams regularly take ‘time out’ to refresh and renew the relationship, and ensure that components of companionship remain.

But beyond all that, beyond the traditional dynamics of successful teams, there is a whole other group of stakeholders to factor in. Let’s assume that the Cabinet follows the steps above and form a great, high-performing team. How do they get the two sets of MPs to work together? What about the cadre of party members or executive of each party? What about the voters? So the challenge is not just to form a great team – hard though that is – but to form a great team that can then create the conditions for other great teams to form: through the Commons, through the party committees, and through the country.

Cohesive coalitions do not just happen. They require effort, attention, tolerance and teamwork. Our government is off to a good start: long may the new politics continue.

Stephen Welch is a director at global management consultancy, Hay Group. www.haygroup.co.uk