I was recently asked if partnering is complex or complicated. This had me stumped because I had always thought of these terms as synonymous. So I did some homework. I found a great article from MIT Sloan that gave me a good working idea of the differences. Here it is in a nutshell:

“Complicated problems can be hard to solve, but they are addressable with rules and recipes, like the algorithms that place ads on your Twitter feed. They also can be resolved with systems and processes … The solutions to complicated problems don’t work as well with complex problems, however. Complex problems involve too many unknowns and too many interrelated factors to reduce to rules and processes.”

Sorry to lead this article with my self-education journey, but it caused me to think about what aspects of partnering are systematic and which must be addressed situationally by human intervention. With respect to partnering, one can parse this difference between complex and complicated in the context of the ISO 44001 Collaborative Business Relationship Standard. I’ve served as a leader and a member of the U.S. delegation to the ISO committee developing this standard. At the onset of developing this standard, many of my colleagues claimed that partnering couldn’t be standardized because every collaboration is unique. Yet most organizations that are consistently successful with their collaborations have adopted a standard framework of processes and best practices for partnering. Conversely, those that approach partnering in an ad hoc mode typically fail.

Partnering in this context is both complex and complicated. It’s complicated in that there’s a predictable component to successful partnering. It can be systematized into processes and frameworks and, in fact, documented into an international standard. But, it’s also true that each partnership is unique and requires situational adaptation. In our standards work, this is addressed by distilling the framework of the standard into 12 principles of collaboration. The framework is process-oriented. The principles guide situational decisions and behavior.

One principle, for example, is governance. You must have governance, but the details of how it’s structured and executed are going to depend upon the specific circumstances of the partners and the desired outcomes of the collaboration. Governance is often described as a balancing act between trust and control. That leaves room for a lot of discretion to manage complexity. In fact, you might make an assumption that the more complex a relationship is, the more you need to shift toward trust to be responsive to the unknown factors. If a relationship is merely complicated (maybe a transactional supplier relationship), you may be well served with a rigorous control process.

Alliances are often described as incomplete contracts because you can’t possibly anticipate everything that could happen and put it into writing. There’s some dependency that the collaborative spirit in the relationship is in place to work out issues as they arise and respond to change as necessary.

What we called ecosystems only a few years ago were hub and spoke communities. The relationships were one-to-many with a vendor/orchestrator in the center. Channels, ISV technology programs and service/solution partners were hubs that operated in silos. As an ecosystem orchestrator, you can reduce the complication in an ecosystem as certain processes can be largely predictable, at least at a high level. These include partner onboarding, enablement, education, opportunity management, delivery and service frameworks. These can often be automated into self-serve partner journeys, but you should allow some flexibility to be responsive to complexity. You won’t scale if, as the central hub, you try to over-program it all or try to handle every exception.

What I see has been evolving, especially with complex solutions such as digital transformation, is that a complex delivery model is required with numerous peer-to-peer, multilateral touchpoints across several partners with different business models. Complexity is resolved by enabling more interaction within the ecosystem. You have to enable partners to find each other across silos and to collaborate and problem-solve around specific customer use cases.

In summary, while many partnering and collaborative process are complicated, they can be systematically managed and automated. As I’ve advised my clients, you want to automate as much of these “administrative” processes as you can. This is usually the domain of partner relationship management software. This frees up the human relationship managers to focus on high-touch interactions with partners that build collaborative relationships, inspire innovation and drive economic value — the complex tasks versus the merely complicated.