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Thursday 17 April 2014

Don't play partnership bingo!

'It is not the last number in a row that is responsible for winning a game of bingo - it is the overall line or pattern of numbers. But we focus on the last number.'

Peter A. Corning (biologist and complex systems scientist)
From a Lecture at Stanford Business School 2005

I remember playing in a game of cricket when I was a student. It was one of the few games I played in, and about the only game that I was successful in. I went in to bat very early on, batted for about 90 minutes, during which time not many wickets fell, and scored 26 runs. (I can still remember the amount!)

The game was a close one and, being as it was between lecturers and students, it was hotly contested. The overs ticked by: I lost my wicket; others made runs; others lost their wickets; there was drama; there were near misses; there was much shouting and many earnest appeals.

But eventually we won the game. Celebration broke out amongst the students. It was, I think, the first time the students had managed to win against the staff. The team-mate who had scored the winning run was instantly surrounded by all his comrades and hoisted up onto shoulders. The crowd, such as it was and being mainly composed of students, cheered loudly, their attention focused on the celebrations on the field - and on the winning run scorer in particular. I think he scored about 10 or so runs.

I remember thinking, all be it fleetingly, that people seemed to have forgotten my contribution to the win. (In fact, I had top scored!) I felt a slight youthful pang of resentment, and then got on with the celebrations.

For those of you not familiar with the game of cricket, a similar effect can often be observed at soccer matches, especially if the match has been a hard-fought one. Perhaps many goals have been scored during the game, but it is the one scored in the very last seconds of injury time that is etched into people's minds, along with its scorer. The other goals and their scorers are, at least momentarily, forgotten by the crowd. This forgetfulness is increased exponentially and made virtually permanent when the match is reported in the television news that night or in the papers the next morning; it is the winning goal scorer who takes pride of place amongst the 'top of the news' stories or the outside page headlines. Other contributions are relegated to supporting paragraphs on the inner pages or briefly, almost imperceptibly whispered by newscasters in support of the headline grabbing 'killer goal' story. 

I mention these sporting examples not to express any sense of injustice or, in the case of my cricketing story, lingering bitterness, but to illustrate the point that we seem to be hardwired to look for, recognise and celebrate (sometimes at the expense of other contributions) the threshold moments, the moments when everything leading up and contributing to something meshes together and results in a recognisably 'game changing' event.

And this tendency has important implications for collaborative and partnership working. During the course of a collaborative project different partners will contribute to its overall success at different times and in different ways. For example, a well-established and trusted local community group working with others to provide innovative services to NEET young people (young people not in education, employment or training) may take the lead in gaining initial engagement and interest from young people. Other partners, perhaps more national or international in character, may then seek to exploit this newly gained engagement by providing the expertise and resources required to design and quickly implement the new education, employment and training services the young people will use. Another partner, perhaps a faith group or government agency, may be able to ensure the well-being and safety of staff when they begin working in deprived and perhaps hostile localities. It may also be able to do the same for the young people using the new services.

All the above partners make significant and indispensable contributions to the success of the project, but within a collaborative environment they will do so in sometimes unexpected and often subtle, unnoticed ways (ways which perhaps depend upon no more than the timely and powerful intervention of a knowing and trusted individual who can 'have a word in the right ears at the right times').

Given this opaqueness and complexity of contribution, a collaboration (and those funding it) will seek to measure what can easily be measured: the amount of young people attending the project's programmes, the amount successfully completing training courses, or gaining long-term or permanent work, etc. 

This is an understandable and indeed important thing to do. It can, however, encourage a bias towards the Bingo Effect. If a collaboration's processes and systems are exclusively geared towards recording and acknowledging the 'game changing moments', those moments when every meaningful contribution past and present converges to create a tangible and valued result, then other significant assists and achievements are expunged from the scorecard, erased from the collaboration's memory and therefore unacknowledged and unrewarded.

Partners who have invested major effort and/or put their personal credibility on the line to achieve these unacknowledged and unrewarded significant assists and achievements are likely to feel aggrieved and their motivation to continue contributing in similar ways will surely be severely diminished. They will be like the forgotten and unappreciated run-maker in a game of cricket, or the early and quickly forgotten goal-scorer in a soccer match: perhaps dispirited and resentful, and if not deleted from the scorecard then certainly omitted from the headlines.         
To minimise the Bingo Effect it is important to find ways of acknowledging and rewarding the contributions and achievements that are not easily measured or recognised as 'game changing'. Central to this is capturing the stories, experiences and perceptions of those touched by a collaboration's work and then acknowledging and rewarding the qualitative achievements these highlight.

To go back to our NEET example: if young people are saying they feel highly engaged, safe and secure, valued and more confident, be sure to acknowledge and reward the partners that young people identify as responsible. Put these qualitative achievements beside those that are more quantifiable and value them just as much. Give them their share of the headlines. Appreciate the pattern of contribution they create and, where payment by results is involved, find ways to ensure that those responsible get a share of the money.

Remember that bingo prizes are given for a complete row or pattern of numbers, not just the memorable, climactic number that elicits cries of 'House!'.    

For more about collaboration go to: Sleeping-with-the-Enemy-Achieving-Collaborative-Success-2nd-Edition  






  1. this is a very important piece that reminds us of the important of each piece that completes the puzzle...and strength as a collective asset rather than attributable to one individual...also, this highlights connectedness - how even failures lead to successes...