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Wednesday 3 January 2018

How an American doughnut can help your partnership achieve its full potential

‘This partnership could have achieved so much more.’ 

‘We did what we set out to do, but with hindsight it was never really going to be enough.’ 

‘I just feel that somehow we have missed an opportunity to make a real, positive   difference’

I frequently hear the above comments and ones like them when listening to those who have had (or are having) very frustrating experiences of working in partnership.
Why are these comments so common? Why, when large amounts of time and effort, not to mention money, are put into encouraging, forming and running partnerships, are they so often perceived as falling short of their initial promise and potential?

This post will explore why many people involved in partnership working find the experience frustrating and consider it an opportunity missed. It will show how Charles Handy’s Doughnut Principle can be used to help partnerships focus not just on those things basic to its existence, but also on those things that will help it achieve its full potential and so make the maximum positive difference within its field of endeavour.   

Why do partnerships frequently fall short of their potential?  

As anyone who has worked in partnerships will know, there can be many reasons why partnerships fall short of their full potential (which of course makes it all the more likely that it will happen). Some of these are: 

·      The urgent demands for quick wins, which force partnerships to take short cuts and go for the obvious but not always the best payoffs.

·      The legal and budgetary conditions and constraints that accompany many partnership projects, which can force them to go down the expected, orthodox routes on the way to achieving the expected, pre – ordained goals. In essence doing what has always been done – creating re – inventions of past solutions that perhaps did not work then and certainly will not work now. 

·      The conflicting goals and agendas of the partners, which can give rise to political manoeuvrings and the associated wasted time and effort.

·      The perception of partnership working as not being core to the partner organisations’ activities, which leads to it being given less attention and a lower priority.

The above are not inconsiderable barriers to successful partnership working, but on top of all this is one other key issue. People working in partnerships (especially for the first time, or as is often the case on an occasional basis only) can frequently feel very uncertain, even intimidated, when faced with the unfamiliar climate, settings and ways of working associated with them. This usually leads to a lack of confidence, which in turn leads to a tendency to play far too safe, to look at what must be done and no further. When this happens, new and innovative ideas and insights are ignored or simply pass by unseen and the opportunity to make real, positive improvements lost.

Charles Handy’s Doughnut Principle

How can the above lack of confidence and accompanying tendency to play safe be effectively addressed? One way is to encourage partnerships to widen their focus to include not only what is purely core and mandatory, but also what is discretionary. To help them search out, identify and evaluate the usefulness and practicality of those things lying in their area of choice, those things which they can but do not have to do. Charles Handy’s Doughnut Principle can help.

In his book ‘The Empty Rain Coat’ Charles Handy explains his Doughnut principle:

‘The doughnut in question is an American doughnut, the kind with a whole in the middle, rather than the British version, which has jam instead of a hole. The doughnut principle, however, requires an inside out doughnut, one with the hole on the outside and the dough in the middle. It can only, therefore, be an imaginary doughnut, a conceptual doughnut, one for thinking with not eating.’ 
When applied to partnerships, the middle of the doughnut represents their core activities – those things that are not negotiable and must be done. It is these things that partnerships, when intimidated by the tasks in front of them, can easily assume to be the beginning and end of everything, so making their first and perhaps most significant errors. These are lack of ambition and avoidance of risk, which all too often stop partnerships from ever achieving anything like their true potential.

The space around the outside of the core comprises those activities that are discretionary, that partnerships could do if they so choose, but do not have to do. It is through doing some of these activities that partnerships can add greatly to their effectiveness. This is because something that is discretionary is not automatically insignificant or unimportant. Indeed, and especially in the case of partnership working, discretionary activities can turn out to be very significant and very important. 

Why the use of choice and discretion is so important for effective partnership working

To understand why the area of discretion is so important for partnership working we need to ask the fundamental question “Why do partnerships form?” Two of the most important reasons are to do something new and to do something that each organisation could not do by itself. In order to do this, partners need to think and act in new, co-operative and creative ways.

To find these creative, new approaches partnerships need to explore previously undiscovered pathways and ideas and find new ways to use and combine their resources. These are most likely to lie hidden somewhere within the discretionary area of Charles Handy’s doughnut. 

To illustrate, think about climbing a mountain. The physical starting point of any such expedition is the base camp. This is a safe, secure place, stocked with everything that, from experience, it is known a climbing expedition will need. The expedition will also have a plan, outlining roles and responsibilities and what the expedition needs to achieve at specific stages of the ascent in order to reach the summit. As with the base camp stocks, this plan will be based on experience of what has been effective for previous climbing expeditions.

In a similar way, those setting up a partnership will consider what their experiences tell them about the likely challenges it will face. They will then put together a plan designed to meet these challenges, and provide the resources they think most likely to be needed.  In doing this they hope the partnership will be able to climb to the top of its own particular mountain – achieve its goals to the best of its ability and potential.

Thinking further about goals, the initial ones set for the partnership will also be based on experiences and other previous information about what it is worthwhile to achieve, for which summit it is best to aim. These goals may or may not prove to be the most appropriate, depending on the actual experiences of the new partnership and the consequences of the unique situations it is likely to confront.

The above process is a good, professional starting point that will very likely get the partnership climbing (perhaps even in the right direction if the correct summit has been chosen; the right set of goals). However, any exploration of new terrain will, sooner or later, present unexpected circumstances and problems. It is during these times that the partnership will need to tap into its area of discretion, to think and act for its self. It will need to explore its new terrain both more widely and more closely, and with fresh eyes. It will need to re – examine its resources and the uses to which they are put. It will need to discover new pathways towards its goals and use and combine its resources in innovative ways in order to reach them.

Finding these new pathways and innovative approaches will make the ultimate difference between success and failure. Will the partnership struggle halfway to the summit of its true potential with the traditional maps and techniques that it began with? Or will it make it all the way to the top armed and fortified with new maps of the terrain and novel ways to combine and use its tools and resources? Will it struggle onwards to achieve the goals originally set for it, even if they prove to be the wrong ones? Or will it redefine its purpose and the goals that fall out of it, so that what it finally achieves makes a real, positive difference to those affected by its efforts?    

The true situation for partnerships is, of course, even more difficult and complex, because the mountains they have to climb are not physical but conceptual and therefore invisible. Partnerships may in fact have no idea as to whether they have reached the summit of their potential, got halfway up, managed to climb only the equivalent of a few hundred metres from their perceptual base camp, or not actually moved on at all due to unseen obstacles. This makes it very important that partnerships immediately form the habit of exploring and utilising their areas of discretion, so they can overcome the unexpected, invisible crevices and sheer cliff walls they will respectively and inevitably fall into or collide with during their climb.       

So essentially, helping partnerships explore their areas of discretion makes what was previously unknowable knowable. It helps partnerships reach new, previously unknown, out of reach destinations by encouraging them to think for themselves, map out their own best routes and identify how best to combine and use their available resources in order to get where they need to go. These new destinations are where originality is most likely to reside, and therefore where partnerships are most likely to find the genuinely new solutions to the problems they have been created and tasked to find.   

How to use the doughnut principle with your partners

To get maximum benefit from the doughnut principle use it early, at the beginning of the life of the partnership when all the partners first get together.  There is usually a lot of optimism and energy around at the very beginning of a partnership project (or at the very least a willingness to give things a chance). Make use of this window of opportunity. Get people to acknowledge and value what is core, but also explicitly focus on the space around the core, the discretionary area, those things that, now that the partnership has come together and exists, it is obvious the partnership could and perhaps should address.

But also notice there is an outer boundary around the discretionary area, which suggests there must be a realistic and acceptable limit to what the partnership can and should do.

Using the doughnut principle in this way immediately widens the partnership’s perception of what can be achieved, rather than immediately limiting and diminishing it into the mandatory core of activities. It also balances the partnership’s perceptions by reminding it of the limits to its activities and the fact that core activities must be done. 

During this initial phase it is useful to use the doughnut principle in a clearly defined and structured way. Try the following: 

1. Present the above diagram to the partners and allow them to board storm all the things they can think of that the partnership could do under each of the headings. Start with what is core (non-negotiable criteria, outputs, deadlines etc.) and then move into the discretionary area and work around the rest of the doughnut. 

Consider each segment in turn: 

·        What is clearly possible within the partnership’s area of discretion (perhaps searching out and setting up meetings with possible future stakeholders and partners)?

·        What is just possible (perhaps making the case and lobbying for more funds and resources)?

·        What is barely possible (perhaps questioning, challenging and changing the assumptions underpinning some of the sacred cows of the project – those ideas and views that have until now seemed sacrosanct)?

·        What seems way out or not possible (perhaps wiping the slate clean and rebuilding the rationale for the partnership’s existence from its core outwards)?

Remember that the usual rules of board storming apply and that the only goal at this stage is to generate a large quantity of ideas.

2. Once there are a decent number of items in each discretionary segment of the doughnut move onto the next phase of the process. Look at each item and decide: 

·        Whether it can stay within the area of discretion. (Is it in fact something the partnership can and should do?)

·        Whether with hindsight it needs to become part of the core. (Is it something that the partnership must, rather than just should or could, do?)

·        Whether it needs to be moved outside of the doughnut altogether (because it is something the partnership cannot or should not do). 

The danger at this stage is that all those items in the ‘Way Out’ segment will be immediately moved to the outside of the doughnut. Resist this temptation. Ensure that each item within this segment is given due consideration. 

If any item from any discretionary segment looks like it is going to be moved outside of the doughnut be sure to challenge each other’s thinking constructively. Ask the following types of questions: 

·        What assumptions or fears is its removal based on? Are they valid?

·        If the item or idea cannot be utilised what can we do that is similar to it but more possible or acceptable?

·        What are the perceived risks and consequences and what are the actual risks and consequences?

·        If we broke the item or idea down into chunks are there any chunks we could keep within the doughnut?

·        If the partnership itself cannot do any of the items are there any stakeholders or other interested parties that could? What can the partnership do to get them on board? Could they become partners?

·        If the item was kept within the area of discretion what would the positives be? Are they really outweighed by the negatives? 

3. Once the partners have completed the above process to their satisfaction, agree specific action points to ensure those discretionary activities identified as important to the effectiveness of the partnership are implemented. 

Given that core tasks will inevitably demand the partnership’s attention, agree one or two action points for implementing discretionary activities immediately. 

Remember that the purpose of this process is to widen and balance the partnership’s perception of what it must do and what it could do if it so wished. Core activities must be addressed, but any action planning associated with them needs to be done separately. This is in order to avoid the perceived importance of the core growing to such an extent that it fills the partnership’s entire view of the doughnut, so smothering the opportunities for creativity and innovation associated with the area of discretion. 


Many people have had frustrating experiences when working in partnership with other organisations. 

This is because many partnership projects fall short of achieving their potential and are therefore less effective than they should be. 

There are many reasons why partnerships fall short of their potential. Key are the feelings of uncertainty, even intimidation, some people feel when faced with the unfamiliar climate, settings and ways of working associated with partnership projects. This can lead to an overall lack of confidence. 

This lack of confidence leads to partnerships playing safe, concentrating purely on what is core and mandatory and ignoring what lies in their areas of discretion – the activities that are not required but that could be undertaken if partnerships so wished. 

Playing safe and concentrating purely on core activities leads to new ideas, insights and opportunities being ignored or passed by. This is because new ideas and insights usually emerge from within the area of discretion, not from within the pre – set core activities. 

One way of encouraging partnerships to widen their focus to include their areas of discretion is to use Charles Handy’s Doughnut Principle in the systematic way described above. 

This principle and the accompanying process encourages partnerships to both widen and balance their perceptions of what is core and discretionary. It draws attention to the area of discretion and encourages its careful analysis. It also reminds partnerships that there are limits to their areas of discretion and that decisions need to be made about what stays within them and what is put outside. These decisions need to be made carefully so as to avoid unnecessarily losing opportunities to maximise potential and increase effectiveness.
Specific action points need to be agreed at the end of the process described above. This is to ensure that partnerships undertake the discretionary activities identified as important to their effectiveness.

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