The importance of ‘owernship’ in technical partnerships

In my career to date, I’ve managed technical suppliers, and been a supplier myself.

Good professional partnerships can be defined by the principle of win / win. If both parties feel they’re getting something positive from the relationship, beyond just the money, then it’s a relationships that can grow. In a client / supplier relationship, those positives can include learning, opportunities to reach new areas, streamlined, easy processes or perhaps just a pleasant working relationship. However, if the criteria of ‘win’ for either party is purely about the money then things can get rocky fast. On the supplier end this can happen when they are paid for services they’re not interested in supplying or can’t supply effectively. At the client end, it can be about refusing to invest in services they value. In both cases, frustration looms.

Good suppliers understand what clients are trying to achieve, and provide solutions that meet the client’s goals while ensuring the process and approach also works for them. In the parlance of flight safety videos, suppliers need to put on their own oxygen mask before helping others. A supplier that provides services it doesn’t gain from does no one any favours.

An example of a win / win relationship in tech would be an IT company understanding the need for backups. If they research solutions and implement those solutions in ways that are highly efficient for the IT company, they can also charge a premium on top of supply costs for the research and setup. The better it works, the happier everyone is. Happy customer. Happy supplier.

A bad example addressing this same problem would be the IT company telling the client they need a backup solution, offering a range of confusing options, some of which are difficult for the IT company to manage, and blaming the customer when the cheap but ineffective backups don’t work.

In short, good suppliers own the problem and the solution, and empower clients to achieve their goals. This isn’t about removing choice, but it is about acting as a trusted adviser understanding what the client is trying to achieve. They understand the client’s goals and engender trust, so customers are happy to go with recommended solutions, and are happy to pay for a good service.

Warning signs of a bad relationship, which I’ve experienced recently, are conversations with your supplier that include:

“We made some changes because [Person A at client org] and [Person B at client org] weren’t happy with the performance. Perhaps that broke it. I’ll ask [Person C at supplier org].”

In this case the supplier isn’t owning the problem and they aren’t owning the solution. The subtext is “you think it’s a problem, but we don’t really agree, or perhaps we don’t care enough to have a view. We also don’t really care what we might have done to break it. I’m now passing the buck internally.”

“We don’t know how it works because your previous developer built it.”

Another scenario of not owning the problem or the solution. They aren’t proposing a way to solve this long term, and are just providing an excuse for why they don’t know what’s going on. This could be transformed into a relationship you’d value with the next sentence: “And so we’re going to work it out and document it so we can handle this in future”.

At heart, suppliers don’t own issues when the client’s problems don’t fit their solutions and their services aren’t aligned with the client’s business needs.

Almost the worse case for a client is a situation where the problem and solution remain ‘owned’ by the client, but a supplier is doing some work around the edges. This gives a completely false sense of security and progress, but in reality is likely to be making a complex situation even more complex.

If this happens to you as a client, at the very least you should address this with the partner. However, in my experience it’s almost always time to cut your losses and find a partner who’s business needs and solutions more closely align with your needs and problems.