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Assumptions and the Alliance Professional’s Superpower

Fingers touching

October 12, 2022

Using the power of positive influence is an essential skill alliance professionals must master. It is perhaps the hardest part of the job and also the source of the value alliance professionals bring to the alliance. Purposefully using influence is how to overcome differences to align on actions, make decisions, and solve problems that drive alliance value. Quite simply, it is the alliance professional’s superpower.

The ability to successfully use influence comes from having an understanding of what is important and useful to both you and your partner to help them accomplish what they are trying to do so that they can help you do what you are trying to do. This give and get over time for mutual benefit is the essence of collaboration, which of course, is how alliances produce results. The better you understand your partner, including motivations, beliefs, and values, the more creative you can be in finding ways to apply influence to achieve your mutual objectives.

The skill is in identifying the sources of value, also known as relationship currencies, that are useful to each party and that produce as much benefit as possible. Many alliance professionals do this somewhat intuitively. Our Master Class offers a systematic approach. To use positive influence effectively, it is important to highlight the assumptions you are making about what is useful and therefore valuable to your partner (and to you).

In talking with conference participants after the Master Class the conversation gravitated to if people are systematic about identifying currencies and the assumptions they are making about what is important and motivating actions. Not surprisingly, many people said they really don’t think explicitly or systematically about the assumptions underlying a decision, recommending a course of action, or analyzing a contentious position. It has consistently been our experience that whether attempting to influence actions, drive a decision, solve a problem; assemble a solution to a customer need; or develop a business plan, people don’t explicitly identify their underlying assumptions.

The impact of this is that we don’t learn as fast as we could if our assumptions are wrong. That means we lose the agility to iterate quickly and we stick with approaches to whatever we are trying to solve for longer than we should. In an alliance situation that can result in value eroding delays and suboptimized decisions—major risks that every alliance professional must guard against. Managing this cost of time wasted by identifying assumptions is one of the most valuable services alliance professionals provide.

Using Assumptions to Learn Fast

Let’s take a look at a situation we’ve seen occur more than once:

An ongoing development program is partnered to provide additional resources, expertise, and geographic reach. The asset owners breathe a sigh of relief because now some of the pressure should be off the team and they can move faster. The licensing party is excited, too. They are confident their partner will share all it knows and provide regular support to kick start the new part of the development program. As is often the case, key assumptions aren’t identified or planned for. Before long, the asset originator is more exhausted because they are keeping up their part of the development program and training and supporting their partner. The partner feels information is being held back, their expertise is questioned, and that they aren’t trusted. The alliance is not in a good place.

What went wrong? The originating partner assumed having an alliance would reduce its workload. It didn’t account for the time and effort required to get the partner up to speed, so it didn’t get the extra resource it assumed that it would. The licensing partner assumed it could learn the asset and existing development program very quickly, demonstrating its expertise to its partner and earning its trust. Because these underlying assumptions were not specifically identified and monitored, the alliance finds itself with studies that are delayed, and both teams are exhausted, frustrated with the churn to get to a decision. Highly valuable scientists are threatening to leave.

A Better More Systematic Approach

What should have happened? Validating or invalidating assumptions is learning. Learning occurs in iterative cycles. As seen in the LEARN FAST graphic, every cycle begins with an initial level of understanding based on all the information you have at that time. You then make assumptions based on your understanding. Assumptions are your hypotheses about what is true or not true based on your current level of understanding.

Information is the fuel for the process. To learn if your assumptions are right or wrong, identify the specific data to collect and how you will collect it to validate or invalidate your critical assumptions.

The assumptions are then put into practice—initially in a way so that you can learn fast what is right and what is wrong. Identify the assumption that if proven wrong will have the greatest negative impact. Note that this information/data has to be collected in real world interactions with stakeholders. If the data proves an assumption is not valid, you need to iterate your assumption quickly. This cycle repeats and repeats as the alliance evolves over time.

The chief skill is not being right in the initial assumptions. No one is ever completely right with his or her first assumptions. The skill is in the ability to quickly gather the specific information you need to validate or invalidate your core assumptions. By incorporating that learning into the next set of assumptions, you will necessarily be closer to the “best” set of assumptions for using your power of positive influence to align activities, drive value creating decisions, and solve problems.

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