The Secret Sauce for Partnerships with Impact

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Under the sea

Here’s a conundrum for you. What does a cold warehouse in a Dutch seaport, a captivating dance performance, and a room filled with strangers have to do with partnering for the SDGs? 

Let me show you. In 2012, a guest speaker appeared at one of our coastal community management classes, with a tale that allowed me my first sneak peek into the magic formula that underpins partnerships with impact. This was a tale of trust, communication and thinking free of silos. 

A quick aside on silos – these are mental barriers created through language, culture and ideology. A thing that prevents collaboration. A thing that prevents progress. A thing that takes attention and effort to break open.

Back to our fishy tale. Our guest’s organisation was charged with creating a collaborative platform in which fishermen, coastal communities, consumers, environmental NGOs, business, academia and government could pool their resources outside of the cyclical (and sluggish) policy agenda of Brussels, in order to protect fish stocks. 

It seemed simple enough, as all players at the table had one goal: fish in the sea forever and everlasting prosperity. 

Our guest’s organisation was clever though and realised that an intellectual goal won’t suffice. The assembled segments of civil society were too drastically different: 

  • Culturally
  • In the way they ideate
  • In the way they reflect on problems within their sector and consequently, solutions
  • In the way they communicate

Add a deep-rooted level of mistrust into the mix, and you have a room full of silos. Before any attempt could be made to create a collaborative platform, our protagonists needed to realise their sameness. They needed to see how – despite their differences – they had the capacity for a shared experience, a shared emotion. 

And so ahead of the day-long meeting to discuss the platform, they brought the 50 odd people from various sectors into a cold warehouse, where everyone was asked to sit on chairs as if waiting for a presentation. 

For 15 minutes, nothing happened, and the room was filled with silence. No exchange, no communication, no community. They slowly dimmed the light, the music gradually started to echo through the warehouse. A dancer materialised out of a shadow-cloaked corner. 

Their performance lasted for only 5 minutes, but the effect was profound. All in attendance were captivated in a similarly powerful way by what they experienced. They were awed, mystified, humbled by the beauty they witnessed. 

After the applause subsided, each guest turned to their neighbour, a stranger, to reflect on what they had seen. The door had been cracked open; trust in their sameness was now a real possibility. The silo was broken, and the ensuing workshop to kick off their collaboration was a smash hit. 

So, what did hearing this story teach me about partnerships? Despite magical moments like the one witnessed in our cold Dutch warehouse, the oceans are in dire straits. 

Sustainable Development Goal 14 ‘Life Below Water’ states: “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”. Doesn’t really feel like we’re anywhere near that does it? 

In European waters alone, which are among the most heavily regulated and policed waters in the world, we still have 30 out of 70 fish stocks fished above Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), see source at the end of this article. 

We need policies, we need Brussels. But we need more. We need everyone. Everyone whose mind is set on creating a more sustainable future to critically reflect on what silos they may operate in, and devise ways to break them down vehemently and consistently. 

Without attention to silos, even the most well-meant effort can backfire. Let me give you an example, and indulge in my two cents on the hot topic of Seaspiracy

Its creator, Mr Ali Tabrizi, did something ingenious: he broke the silo that all too often plagues documentaries of this kind. A silo between the narration style and topic of the documentary, and its audience, people like you and me living our lives.

Seaspiracy wasn’t aloof, it didn’t feel remote. It resonated with what so many of us feel, through Mr Tabrizi’s own emotions as he set out to uncover the world of fisheries. He felt confusion, ignorance, shame and helpless anger in the face of a problem so complex, emotions many of us have felt in the face of dying seas. 

So when the only one palpable solution – to stop eating fish – is reached by Mr Tabrizi, we the audience, are right there with him. By grounding the partnership in shared emotion, the ‘lay-person x Mr Tabrizi silo’ was broken. 

Yet nearly every other featured sector of the documentary was slandered. Critical experts saw interview snippets tarnish his name and the whole conservation community lost a good chunk of their credibility in the public eye. Credibility that is of pivotal importance for them to do their work. 

With no sense of partnership for a shared goal between many of the parties featured in the documentary, breaches of trust and forced miscommunication have created silos in places where previously there were none. Silos within a group of people and organisations that have one shared goal: the sustainable development of the sea. 

I am not saying that I didn’t enjoy the way in which Seaspiracy rattled us awake and made us think. I am saying that the secret sauce of partnerships was not applied to the whole dish.

In closing this illustrious little contribution to Impact17’s wonderful newsletter I hope that, if nothing else, you will start looking at your own universe of people and organisations. And ask yourself: “What silos might I have overlooked? And how can I break them?” 

If you enjoyed this, take a look at Tom’s blog series on Silos

Sources: Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF), Monitoring the Performance of the Common Fisheries Policy (STECF-Adhoc-19-01), Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2019, ISBN 978-92-76-02913-7, doi:10.2760/22641, JRC116446 

Tom Zamzow
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Our featured guest writer for June’s newsletter is Tom Zamzow. With academic roots in sustainable coastal zones and international affairs, paired with years in the fields of corporate communication and reputation management, Tom specialises in maximising opportunities and minimising pitfalls of private sector x not-for-profit partnerships.

Tom recently founded his own company, Zamzow Consulting, which focuses on communications, partnerships and reputation management to bring people and businesses together for a more sustainable future. Tom also operates a career podcast called HIGHER!, designed to help people ace their careers and make their values come alive at the workplace.

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