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Friday 13 December 2013

A pinch of pain will prompt your partnership's progress

What really prompts businesses, organisations, institutions and governments to collaborate? Is it the greater good? Is it that ‘we are all in it together’? Is it that the complex, scary issues of the world cannot be addressed by one business, one organisation, one government alone? Is it the recognition that we are but one species under the sun and that collaborating is the right, ‘moral’ thing to do?

No, I think it is pain that provides the sharp prod towards collaboration: the pain that a business feels when it is losing market share and money; the pain that a government feels when it is losing power and control; the pain that a charity feels when it cannot feed those in need. Loss of profit, loss of security, loss of credibility, loss of reputation, loss of power, loss of ability: all of these and more cause the pain that prods collaboration.
Just consider the following for a moment:
  • Nations say much about the importance of international collaboration to combat global warming, but it is those countries at its painful sharp-end or, perhaps more appropriately, at its drowning waterline that are most passionate in their advocacy. Those not so directly affected, at least for the present, shed crocodile and occasionally sincere tears, content to throw their cash in from the side-lines and help (quite literally) mop up after disasters strike.
  • Bank executives talk heart-warmingly about the need to work with businesses to combat and overcome the economic recession, but then stockpile the government printed money that would be of most help. This is their insurance against the most excruciating pain they can ever experience: becoming a bank without money (Okay, this is an example of the fear of pain working against collaboration and the greater good, but it still shows that pain or the fear of pain is a prime motivator for institutional decision-making -- and I wanted to get the banks in somewhere).
  • European Governments (and sometimes their people – as the recent events in the Ukraine demonstrate) argue enthusiastically for the political and economic advantages of an expanding European Community; they do this most loudly if in danger of experiencing the pain of national poverty, bankruptcy and political instability.
  • UK Regional Authorities have only recently begun to share and merge services, even though it always made sense to remove duplication and dismantle bureaucratic and territorial boundaries. Why? They are experiencing the pain caused by not having enough money, people, expertise, influence and status to get things done on their own.
  • The energy companies of the west, experiencing the famine-pain caused by their dwindling stockpiles, frantically seek to collaborate with fuel rich nations in exploring and exploiting new oil and gas fields.
  • Failing mining companies wait until they are ‘dead men walking’ before the impending pain of their liquidation makes them unilaterally share their highly prized expertise and statistics in the hope of encouraging and benefiting from the collaborations that may result.
Pharmaceutical companies? Well, they act differently. They exist within a sector that would not function effectively without the on-going collaboration that is hard-wired into their ways of working. Also, interestingly and perhaps not totally coincidentally, they work in an industry where pain and its alleviation is never far away from their thoughts; it is always in some way or other the focus of their decisions and actions. It is tempting to think that this awareness of pain and the need to alleviate and if possible end it affects the day-to-day thinking of those working in the pharmaceutical industries, making them more pain aware than those working within other industries. (I am aware this is probably a fanciful notion, but it is interesting non-the-less.)
Am I being overly simplistic, overly sweeping in my above statements? 

Perhaps so; to be honest, probably so!

But doing so feels so easy, so comfortable; and I do not think this is entirely down to my natural predispositions, my warped perceptions or my flawed judgement. I think there is a hard, sharp, spiky kernel of truth in my belief that pain is one of the strongest motivators of people who seek to work collaboratively.
For the sensitive amongst us, and indeed for my own sensitive side, it is important to realise that the concept of a ‘pain driver’ for collaboration has a positive and caring aspect. (My comment about the pharmaceutical industry touched on this very briefly.) We humans can be prodded by another sort of pain: sympathetic pain, feeling pain for others and their problems. This pain prompts charities to work with each other and the public and private sectors to improve the help they give to those in need; it prompts health and social care professionals to integrate their functions to enhance the quality of life of patients; it prompts the collaborative approaches of social enterprises that seek to improve the life chances of disadvantaged people.

So, I believe the pain driver, in either selfish or selfless form, is very significant and powerful in encouraging people to collaborate and that it must be embraced rather than underestimated, avoided or dismissed.
We must not be shy about seeking out the pain that threatens us (and those we are working with or trying to help). If we find pain and suffering we must explore and share it with partners. We must be strikingly clear about the pain's consequences and graphically demonstrate how its neglect could enable it to become excruciating and eventually immensely harmful to all concerned.
Does this sound sadomasochistic? Perhaps it does, but obviously this is only the case when it is done without any purpose other than the joy of inflicting pain. If it is done with another purpose in mind, the need to create closer, more intense and even passionate collaboration among partners, it is an act of kindness, perhaps even love.


  1. Interesting article Charles. Clearly defines the "burning bridge" to motivate change.

  2. As someone who has burnt a fair amount of bridges in my time, I can vouch for the effectiveness of the approach :)

    Thanks for the comment Lisa.