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Tuesday 24 February 2015

Why should the devil have all the best collaborations? Identifying and selecting your partners in crime

Most crimes are not solo ventures; they require people to work together and share resources; they require people to share risk, to trust and rely on each other; they require people to do all this without the reassuring safety-nets of the law and business and institutional best practice.

This is the first in a series of posts which will explore what we can learn from some of the most successful collaborators on the planet: those involved in organised crime. It will analyse the collaborative practices of organised criminals and explore how they can be acceptably (and legally) adopted and adapted by those involved in legitimate collaborative ventures.

Identifying and selecting your partners in crime 

This first post will identify the lessons we can learn from how criminals identify and select their partners in crime.

The what, the who and the trust risk calculation    

Firstly, those planning a crime will identify what precisely needs to be done and the type or types of partner/s they require to do it. They will consider not only the mix of resources and skills needed but also the level of trust required between partners. This latter point is very important to criminals and is dependent upon the risk-value of the planned crime.

If the crime has a high risk-value (e.g., drug smuggling offences, which have very serious consequences for those that are caught and convicted) there is a need for high trust between partners. If the crime has a moderate risk-value (e.g., people trafficking offences, which have somewhat less onerous consequences for those convicted) there is a need for moderate trust between partners. If the crime has a relatively low risk-value (e.g., car theft, where the consequence of being convicted are relatively trivial compared with the previous two crimes) there is only a need for low trust between partners.

This trust/risk calculation plays a central role in the nature of any eventual collaboration and the type of relationship the partners in crime will have with each other. For high risk crimes ties and relationships between partners will be more intimate and interdependent, creating a significant shared vulnerability that helps guarantee loyalty to the cause. For lower risk crimes ties and relationships between partners will be more casual and less interdependent. This may increase the risk of disloyalty but, as the consequences of this happening are less damaging and the partners have less shared vulnerability, it is usually a risk worth taking.

The where and the when

Next, criminals need to identify where and when to look for the partners they require. They know that the people they are looking for will usually be found in certain places at certain times, and that these places and times will vary from those at which law abiding citizens are usually found:

'Criminals hang out in bars, gambling dens, boxing gyms, and social clubs...during normal working hours or late at night, at times, that is, when a common person is otherwise occupied.'

'Or they live in rough neighbourhoods for the same reason well-to-do people move out of them - both dread making encounters of the wrong sort.'

(From 'Codes of the Underworld' by Diego Gambetta)

In short, criminals are willing and able to take less travelled roads towards locations not usually frequented by the average law abiding person, and to do so at times normally considered inconvenient, anti-social or even dangerous.

Identifying the right partners

Once criminals are in the right place at the right time and amongst a varied pool of potential partners, they can start the process of selecting those most suited to their needs. They will take time over this process, carefully categorising potential partners according to whether they are:
  • False-negatives
  • False-positives
  • Dormant
  • Partial 

False-negatives are potential partners that do not initially look like promising partners in crime: their image, reputation and behaviour appear inconsistent with what is required. However, this initial impression proves false and, once the mask of their apparently innocent demeanour is removed, they are found to be ideal candidates for criminal partnership.

False-positives are potential partners that initially look like promising partners in crime: their image, reputation and behaviour appear consistent with what is required. However, similar to the false-negatives above, once the mask of their apparent suitability is removed they are found to be far from ideal candidates for criminal partnership. At worst, they may be undercover agents working for the police or other law enforcement agencies.

Dormant potential partners are those that do not realise they could be effective partners in crime or do not know how to connect with people who could offer them the opportunity to become partners in crime. They may be in a location where criminals congregate but not be connected with them in any meaningful way. This may be because they come from a different social environment or belong to an ethnic, religious or some other group not usually associated with criminal activities. Dormant potential partners are particularly valuable as they have no criminal history, making them almost invisible to law enforcement authorities, and they often offer new opportunities for expanding criminal networks and increasing the size and scope of criminal activity.

Partial potential partners are those that it may be advantageous to include in a criminal activity on an occasional, part time and clearly defined basis, calling upon their knowledge, contacts and support as required. It would not, however, make sense to include them as full-time partners in a criminal endeavour. This may be because they are not trustworthy or their value is such that they are worth insulating from the consequences of full involvement in crime.

What can legal overworld collaborations learn from illegal underworld collaborations about identifying and selecting potential partners?

The key principles underpinning the above practices can be acceptably (and legally) adopted and adapted by those of us involved in legitimate collaborations and partnerships.

The what, the who and the trust/risk calculation

Identifying what needs to be done and the types partners needed to achieve it are obvious things that any collaborative project, legal or illegal, needs to do.

It is the trust/risk calculation criminals use when selecting partners that is of most significance and value to legitimate 'overworld' collaborations.

If the nature, focus and activities of a collaboration make it likely that disloyal, selfish or risky behaviour by a partner would endanger the collaboration's effectiveness, reputation or business interests, etc., and also that of other partners involved, then a high trust relationship between partners is needed. Those seeking to collaborate must keep this need in mind when identifying and selecting potential partners. They may need to play safe and work with partners they have significant experience of or they can easily find out about from the experiences of others. Alternatively, if a collaboration is required to be innovative and ground-breaking and in need of an infusion of new perspectives and ideas from previously unknown partners, it will need to test these partners' credibility and commitment. It can do this by working with them on some discrete, carefully ring-fenced but meaningful and challenging projects which would uncover their true attitudes and intentions.

A cautionary tale from the IT sector illustrates the importance of the above:
  • A global IT company was looking for partners to add value to its widely used operating system. A smaller but growing niche company specialising in the development of hand-held devices looked like an attractive partner with which to work; they had specialist knowledge about a new and potentially popular type of technology and partnering with them would provide the global company with a new and probably very lucrative platform for its operating system. Both companies worked closely together for some time, sharing their technical know-how. Then the niche company terminated its relationship with the global company and launched a new hand-held device - complete with its own new operating system!

Here, a high trust relationship was required. The outcome suggests that more could have been done to test the commitment to collaboration and underlying intentions of the niche company prior to full partnering and the sharing of valuable expertise and knowledge.

If a collaboration's focus and activities are not so vulnerable to the negative consequences of partners' bad behaviour, perhaps because the nature of its functions, activities and knowledge sharing tends to be compartmentalised between partners (collaborators tending to work alongside each other rather than within each other's organisational or business space), the trust risk calculation may indicate that a medium to low trust relationship with partners may suffice and that traditional contractual arrangements, plus the ability to easily and quickly replace a troublesome partner, might adequately safeguard reputations and business interests.

The where and the when

Criminals go to where their potential partners in crime are likely to be and they go to these places at times when they are likely to meet them, however inconvenient, anti-social or even dangerous doing so may be.

Legitimate collaborations can certainly learn from this. They often suffer from the Carousel Syndrome, when the same old faces, the same old partners, turn up again and again and again, whenever a new collaborative initiative is formed. This does not enhance a collaboration's ability to be innovative or to benefit from new perspectives and insights. It also limits the pool of potentially valuable knowledge, experience and expertise a collaboration can call upon.

Being prepared to go to where more 'hard-to-reach' potential partners are, at times and in ways that are convenient to them, however anti-social or even dangerous these may seem, can make all the difference to a partnership's ability to engage effectively with its target audience and gain the knowledge, expertise and resources it needs to achieve its aims:
  • A government agency in Northern Ireland needed to work in partnership with the local community to enhance their social, economic and environmental outcomes. It needed to engage with more than the 'usual subjects'. So its staff went out into the community and visited 'hard-to-reach' people in places and at times that suited them, however inconvenient and, more to the point given the political situation at the time, however potentially dangerous it was. The additional partners the agency gained provided it with the local knowledge and support it needed to move its projects forward.
  • An English Metropolitan Council decided to change the way it delivered its services. It wanted to give local people more say in what sort of services they had and how, when and by whom they were delivered. This meant they needed to work in partnership with not only the representatives of local communities but also the ordinary people within local neighbourhoods. Council officials, including some of the senior leadership, left their comfortable offices and moved into porta-cabins situated within the neighbourhoods due to benefit from the new way of delivering services. Staff working in these cabins forsook their nine-to-five routines and made themselves available at times that suited local people. The council formed close working relationships with the people of the neighbourhoods and, together, they were able to begin delivering local services tailored to local needs.
  • A collaborative initiative in California working to improve the health of children was able, through the efforts of a travelling Spanish speaking outreach officer,  to make contact with a small and isolated support group of Spanish speaking families that were caring for seriously ill children. Once found and engaged with these families eventually took a lead role in the initiative's work, reaching out towards and helping additional hard-to-reach communities.

Identifying the right partners

Once a legitimate 'overworld' partnership has placed itself in the right place at the right time to identify a varied and rich pool of potential partners it can continue to learn from its criminal counterparts, adopting an adapting the categories they use to sort and select their partners.

Within law abiding society and the legitimate business world:

False-negative potential partners are individuals, groups, businesses and other organisations that, because of their reputations, history and tradition, roles and responsibilities, positioning within society, previously stated views and aims, etc., can be perceived as unlikely partnership candidates. When, however, we find out more about them, uncovering their actual rather than assumed values and ways of operating, their true potential to become valuable partners reveals itself.

Large and traditional institutions, such as government departments, can at first seem daunting and unlikely partnership candidates for smaller organisations working within the social and voluntary sectors, as can the police and other regulatory and enforcement authorities. Big business, positioned within its gleaming and apparently self-interested towers of commerce, can also, for some, seem equally unpromising partnership material.

Local tightly knit ethnic and/or religious groups and other special interest and community groups, which often exist semi-formally and are firmly rooted within the fabric of their cultures and environments, can seem equally unpromising as partners for government departments, regulatory authorities and big business.

But these initial negative impressions can often prove false:
  • An employment and training initiative did not seek to engage with a local community group assuming, because of the group's reputation and past behaviour, that it would not be interested in becoming involved. When forced to think again because of an inability to engage productively with local people, the initiative found its overtures welcomed and the group keen to become a partner. The initiative began to thrive.
  • A social enterprise focused upon supporting and encouraging people to move out of the informal economy into the formal taxpaying economy found one of its greatest allies from within Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. Looked at from afar this makes perfect sense. However, given HMRC's much publicised use of the law and tough financial penalties to discourage non-compliance with tax regulations, the social enterprise and the people it was working with may not have initially perceived the government department as a likely or even attractive partner in the development of a supportive, non-punitive and engaging strategy for encouraging people away from the informal economy.
  • Global pharmaceutical and telecommunication companies are lead partners in collaborative initiatives which are providing much needed health services to remote and inaccessible areas of Africa. The much publicised profit motive of these companies dwindles somewhat in its significance when the time is taken to uncover the real rather than apparent nature of their motivations, interests and activities.
  • A half-way house seeking to rehabilitate young offenders and stop them re-offending was able to enhance its results through an ongoing partnership with local police, who adopted a supportive, informal and engaging role rather than the perhaps more expected formal monitoring and enforcing role.                        

False-negatives wear a mask of partly their own and partly others' making. When the time is taken to look under the mask their true potential as partners is revealed.

False-positive potential partners are individuals, groups, businesses and other organisations that, because of their reputation, history and tradition, roles and responsibilities, positioning within society, previously stated views and aims, etc., can be perceived as ideal partnership candidates. When, however, we find out more about them, uncovering their actual rather than assumed values and ways of operating, their true potential to become significantly less than ideal partners reveals itself.

In the criminal underworld one of the greatest dangers is the undercover agent. The most effective ones present themselves as ideal partners in crime, with all the right credentials, history, expertise and attitudes. They can play their parts for as long as it takes, and when the time is right they will ruthlessly trap their prey.

And the criminal, caught like a fly in a Venus fly trap, can do nothing but wait for the inevitable, watching his criminal life gradually dissolve into failure (and significant jail time).

In the legitimate overworld of collaboration the false-positive partner is a dark, but usually somewhat milder, inversion of the undercover agent; where the undercover agent seeks to gather evidence and stop crime and anti-social behaviour, the false-positive of the legal overworld seeks to use their partners' expertise, knowledge and collaborative efforts for their own selfish, perhaps unethical rather than criminal, reasons.

The niche IT company mentioned previously is an example of a partner that eventually revealed its false-positive nature by withdrawing from its partnership as soon as it had gained what it needed to launch its own product, complete with a brand new (rather than its partner's) operating system.

Another slightly more subtle example, arguably, is that of two academic institutions which went into partnership with each other to gain funds for and create a state-of-the-art technology and resource centre. When the time felt right, and the opportunities presented themselves, one institution took steps to ensure that the centre was located within their campus rather than their partner's.

Both institutions obviously had the right of access to the centre and the kudos that came from making it a reality. However, the institution that had the centre within its campus gained the arguably superior kudos that physical possession confers, together with a strong, attractive and quite literally built in argument for gaining additional sponsorships, funding and resources that might subsequently become available.
If not exactly a full false-positive, the partner that gained the centre for its campus certainly exhibited one or two key traits, making it deserving of some very careful surveillance and management. (It could be, and probably was, argued that the centre 'had to be somewhere'. This is a deceptively simple argument that instantly minimises both the significance of the centre's eventual location and the advantages to be gained from having it in one's physical possession. This argument was probably most subtly and effectively employed by the institution that gained the centre for its campus.)

Dormant potential partners are individuals, groups, businesses and other organisations and institutions that are unaware of their potential as partners, or they would like to be partners in an appropriate collaboration but do not know how to make it happen: where to look, who to contact, what avenues to follow, what opportunities there are, how it all works, etc. Dormant partners, once identified an activated, can often prove immensely valuable:
  • When the English Metropolitan Council mentioned above delivered its services in the traditional 'top down' way the residents and community groups falling within its boundaries struggled to approach and engage with it. When the council made its approach to identifying services more participatory and involving it successfully activated the dormant partnering potential of local people.
  • The knowledge and expertise of individuals and groups with lived experience of mental and physical health issues would have lain unregarded and unused without the efforts of health service providers, who reached out and encouraged these people to become partners in identifying, delivering and enhancing the services they had direct experience of using. 
  • A charity delivering respite services to carers and the cared for became a leading partner in providing targeted and tailored care home services within a Northern English region when its partnering potential was identified, developed and utilised by a council's social care department.
  • The energy and vitality of youth would have remained untapped if those seeking to improve the youth services of a large northern city had not sort out young people's dormant creativity and harnessed it to the cause. Young people became partners in designing and delivering the services and making the business case for funding.
  • An established local business in North Yorkshire became the hub of a thriving social enterprise offering training and employment opportunities to the long-term unemployed when its dormant partnering potential was realised through collaboration with the regional council, which actively sort to engage with and support it.
  • A small computer recycling business in Kenya became a key partner in delivering a global computer manufacturer's environmental strategy when its dormant partnership potential was identified and exploited to mutual advantage.                            

Dormant partners (individual, organisational and institutional, large and small, informal and formal) are waiting to be found and utilised by those willing to invest time and effort in finding them.

Partial potential partners are individuals, groups, businesses and other organisations that are not likely to become fully involved in a collaboration. This could be because they are not sufficiently engaged with or interested in a collaboration's work or because, for whatever reason, a collaboration prefers to keep them at arm's length or parked safely out of harm's way. Perhaps their histories suggest they could cause problems if too closely involved in things, or perhaps their added value is best saved for special initiatives or times of particular need (much like a star football player who is only used for important matches or a specialist reserve player or 'super-sub.' who is only used for crucial moments in a game).

Whatever the reason, a partial partner's value is such that they are certainly considered worth keeping in the loop, in the network of the collaboration's potentially useful contacts, but not within the hub of the collaboration's ongoing and key partners:
  • A collaboration seeking to develop the role of social enterprise in enhancing the well-being of people living in deprived areas worked hard at keeping a wide variety of regional and central government agencies appraised of its activities, occasionally inviting them to take a closer look and perhaps play some part. This made it easier for the collaboration to ask for additional support from government sources as and when needed. Given the occasional, more casual nature of its relationships with various government agencies the collaboration often gained additional support in the form of greater recognition and influence for its work, rather than in the form of financial or other tangible resources. This support, however, helped it build a strong mainstream presence within organisational, institutional and societal thinking and practice. Also, government agencies, etc., were often able to point towards people and organisations that, with the right words in the right ears, could be persuaded to offer more practical support.
  • High profile individuals, such as royalty, sports people, actors, celebrities and well-known business leaders, etc., are often courted as partial partners. Their recognition value, reputations and credibility play a significant role in adding memorability and weight to a collaborative project's message, helping it gain timely additional support and resources for its work. The UN and many well-known charities use this approach.                    

Some individuals and groups are not high profile or influential but they can offer bridges towards those that are. This makes them potentially valuable partial partners that can be called upon to play their brokering/introducing role as and when their contacts are needed:
  • An initiative focused upon integrating health and social services enhanced its chances of success by seeking out the most active members of its regional 'Local Involvement Network', encouraging them to take an interest in its work and requesting introductions to some of their contacts. Those participating in Local Involvement Networks (which were initiated by the Department of Health to give local people a greater say in the workings of their health and social services) are low profile but enthusiastic people who, because of their involvement in the network, have access to a great many contacts across all sectors involved in delivering health and social services within a region.       

These  types of contacts and networks, because of their low profile, are not easily  identifiable (unlike celebrities or government departments) and they are usually discovered during face-to-face informal gatherings or outreach events that a collaborative initiative arranges for this and other purposes. This is one reason why encouraging and achieving a degree of informality between partners, potential partners and other stakeholders is a consistent trait of effective collaborations.

Look out for future posts about the best ways to deal with and manage the different partner types

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