According to the government’s statistics for the UK in 2022, SMEs accounted for 99.9% of the entire business population. They refer to SMEs as the backbone of the economy. Small is beautiful.
But SMEs still find it hard to compete for larger contracts and find they are shut out of many opportunities simply based on their size.
However, agile and responsive working practices, and the ever-increasing speed of delivery, have given SMEs new vigour. The value of the SME work model seems much more attractive in recent years and there has been legislative pressure to see more SMEs represented at the table for consideration, at least, for bigger contracts.
The government are supposed to be opening up their own, and local government procurement processes to make it easier for SMEs to win contracts, and in doing so, for collaborative pitches to be viewed more favourably than they would have been in the past.
Any SME that has ever tried to jump through the hoops needed to make it onto an approved supplier list will be well aware of that mountain of paperwork, a minefield of compliances needed and the hours and hours that need to be invested into such applications.
Invariably to be in a position to tackle bigger contacts many SMEs have to form strategic partnerships as they can rarely meet all the requirements alone. Strategic partnerships and collaborations have become the name of the game.
Many companies, my own included, have chosen to develop several such collaborations with particular specialists, who add additional expertise in complimentary arenas. These collaborations offer more value to the end client and present a far more viable option to the procurement officer.
So what are the core aspects of a mutually beneficial collaborative partnership:
1. Complementary skill sets
2. Aligned working behaviours and culture
3. Complementary experience
4. Comparable size (to some degree) – as a distinct mismatch in size usually results in the larger party taking more responsibility.
Some benefits of effective collaborations are obvious:
The sum is greater than the parts.
There is shared responsibility
And a larger resource pool to draw from.
We all know just how much it helps to bounce ideas off another person occasionally. Collaborative teams can add to that in multiples – all driving to the same goal with the same impetus and motivation but each bringing complementary perspectives, knowledge, experience and skills.
It’s also a clear advantage when each collaborative partner works to their own bespoke strengths – the firm best suited to each task taking that aspect of the project. A collaboration of experts formed to deliver a specific outcome with each knowing their specific role within the overall process – and how their work feeds into the overall goal, is a win-win scenario for all.
We all know the adage that ‘many hands make light work’ – but many brains generally make better work. Shared responsibility also shares the risk. And mitigating risk is a key concern for SMEs when taking on larger contracts – as a bad result could be catastrophic to a small firm.
There are always risks
Collaboration can have dangers. Bad outcomes can occur, so let’s not shy away from those hard truths.
My firm, S2 Design, brought another design agency in to help deliver on a major project with a tight deadline. The agency we chose had a solid history delivering on similar projects and we knew one partner well – having had some work interaction previously. However, we had no relationship with the second partner.
In hind sight, we should have done more due diligence and not trusted that our knowledge of the known partner would necessarily translate to how the firm operated – and how the other partner would behave specifically.
In short, the unknown partner was a danger. He was apparently unhappy in that partnership and was looking to leave, was in the process of joining another company and was intent on taking clients with him to sweeten his transition. It transpired, taking our now joint project and client was part of that plan.
Thankfully, he did not calculate for the longevity of the S2 relationship with the client in question – and the trust that had been built up over the many years of that relationship.
As soon as he approached our client, they called us! And he effectively blocked himself from ever talking to that client again. They didn’t trust him even though he was suggesting he could offer them a better deal.
Just from the world of branding and communication design, I have heard many similar stories of collaborations gone wrong:
- Suppliers who didn’t deliver on time and so risked an entire trade show worth of sales for the clients (as well as the client relationship) – or delivered poor quality work which the client could not use.
- Deadlines being missed – sometimes repeatedly, jeopardizing the delivery of other aspects of the project and meaning fulfilling the project requirements was at risk.
- Exports being stuck on the docs at the receiving country and so when they do (eventually) arrive being too late to be used.
- Social media marketers who talked a good game, but in reality, dropped the ball and thus damaged the client relationship.
I’m sure every industry has its own scare stories and you will know a few you could add to this list.
Collaborations are inherently more difficult to manage than dealing with everything within your own team – especially when there is not a good match-up of working practices and company values.
Some people try to manage the collaborative relationship by insisting that any partners work ‘as white label suppliers’ ensuring the primary point of contact and decision-making remains in their own control. But managing any process and delivery outside of your area of expertise can be fraught with difficulties.
However, with the right collaborative teams SMEs can take advantage of the changing dynamics of the business world. Fluid collaborative teams that form and then disperse again, as each project dictates, are becoming commonplace.
You have to get in the boat
The image I placed at the head of this article shows a rowing boat with lots of people manning the oars. Each set of oars-people could be viewed as a separate SME, each working to a common goal. But you have to be in the boat to get anywhere.
There is a ‘cox’ at the bow and someone acting as a rudder at the back. They seem logical additions to any multifaceted task. One person to keep things on track and one deligating and overseeing to ensure everyone is pulling together well.
In my experience that can sometimes be one person but generally an individual with the ability to look to the horizon and keep things on track is not often the best placed to deal with the ongoing management tasks.
As in the boat, one is looking forward and outward whilst the other is focused inwardly and the actions occurring in the boat. If everyone plays their part the destination will be reached and the outcome will be beneficial to everyone.
To use another analogy: At the end of the day, a good collaborative partnership is a bit like a good marriage. It has to be built of mutual trust, respect, and at its best, each partner actively works to support the other and truly desires the best for them.
If every collaboration worked in that way – with every collaborator desiring and pursuing the best possible outcomes for all, then everyone wins.
If everyone wins and no-one has to lose either, then that’s a great game to play.