What are the ground rules for creating a healthy alliance?

Whereas the sigSpreeuwenns of complexity in society become more apparent, social change increasingly takes place through an alliance of persons and organisations that team up for a while for a tough task. Last week, I was talking with some experienced social entrepreneurs to exchange what works (and what not) while developing an alliance that is fit for the task. That is where the idea of ‘ground rules’ come up.

What is a ground rule? One of us gave the example of a murmuration of starlings, which moves in beautiful patterns across the sky. How do they do this?

1. Fly as fast as possible.
2. Do not touch your neighbor.
3. Fly towards the center.

A flight of starlings seems to fly as a single body, while each individual starling just does what it has to do: find support and protection before the big trek.

The case we discussed was about the introducing smart ways to stimulate the physical and mental development of severely handicapped people (SHP) in a playful manner. An alliance of healthcare providers, motion experts, play-therapist and play-developers in Gelderland region (NL) is now working to design and test the effectiveness of techniques. The partners want a method that works.
Now, what are the ground rules for creating such an alliance? This is what we found:

1. An alliance is demand-driven.
An alliance centers around a question or problem that is relevant for all involved, but no one can solve it alone. In our case, the question was: “There are many ways to stimulate physical development of people with a severe handicap, but which one works best in what circumstances?” So, clarify the demand is the first thing to do.

2. There is a tangible goal.
An alliance is not a social club; it is about goal-oriented and practical action. The ‘SHP alliance’ aims to introduce an the activation method to 80% of the relevant SHP institutions in the Netherlands. Thus, they want to reach 80% of the severely handicapped persons with a method that works.

3. All contribute and receive.
Practical work is mostly done on the basis of reciprocity; all partners contribute their knowledge and capabilities, and all share in the results. In our case, all partners contribute to develop and test techniques for physical activation, and all can use the method for free. Commercial exploitation of products is possible if the conditions are discussed and agreed in some detail beforehand.

4. Everyone is free to come and go
At first we assumed that an alliance needs to operate on the basis of consensus, but this is not the case. Dissensus can be positive to sharpen discussions and stimulate creativity for new solutions. The driving force of an alliance is the interest of actors to cooperate with each other. Participants will stay as long as it is worth the trouble; otherwise, an actor will leave. This also means that an alliance is open to those who may want to contribute as well. So the rule is: We vote with our feet, partners come and go as they wish.

If we compare our rules about alliances with the ground rules for the starling murmuration, it becomes clear that our rules are not as neat and independent as the rules for a flight of starlings. We are also not even sure these are all the rules, but that does not matter much—it’s not mathematics. As long as rules are clear and accepted by all partners, they will help to improve the performance of an alliance.


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