According to government statistics for the UK (2022) SMEs account for 99.9% of the entire business population. They have referred to SMEs as the ‘backbone of the economy’. Small is beautiful it seems.

Even given these facts SMEs find it hard to compete for larger contracts. even from Gov and local government, 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, give SMEs an edge and should provide new vigour in pursuing those large contracts.

The value of the SME work model seems much more attractive in recent years and there has been legislative pressure to see more SMEs, at least, represented at the table and given consideration for those bigger contracts.

Government support

The government have committed to open up their own, and local government ,procurement processes to make it easier for SMEs to win contracts, and in doing so, to allow for collaborative pitches to be viewed more favourably than they would have been in the quite recent past.

Any SME that has ever tried to jump through the hoops that were needed to make it onto an approved supplier list, will be well aware of that mountain of paperwork, the minefield of compliances needed, and the hours and hours that need to be invested into such applications.

Invariably, 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 (including my own) have chosen to develop several such collaborations with particular specialists, who add additional expertise in complementary arenas. These collaborations offer more value to the end client and present a far more viable option to the procurement officer.

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) – 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 dynamic in multiples – all driving to the same goal with the same impetus and motivation but each bringing complementary perspectives, knowledge, experience and skills to bear.

Playing to your strengths

It’s also a clear advantage when each collaborative partner works to their 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 of delivering on similar projects, and we knew one of the partner well. Even having been involved in some previous working partnerships. However, we had no relationship with the second partner.

In hindsight, we could 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 that other partner would behave specifically. But you live and learn!

In short, the unknown partner would have been firmly sat in the ‘threats’ section of a classic SWOT analysis had we known him more.

He was unhappy in his own partnership, and it transpired, was therefore looking to leave. He was in the process of joining another company and was intent on taking clients with him to sweeten his move. And it appeared that taking our now joint project and client was part of that migration plan.

Customer loyalty

Thankfully, he did not calculate on the longevity of our relationship with the clients in question and the trust that had been built up over our many years of working together.

As soon as he approached them, our client called us! They didn’t trust him even though he was suggesting he could offer them a better deal.

Just from my colleagues in 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 stuck on the docs at the receiving country so when they do (eventually) arrive the goods are too late to be used at the intended event.
  • Social media marketers who talked a good game, but in reality, dropped the ball and thus damaged the clients’ relationship with their customers.

The truth is that every ara of work will have some unethical players and event the best can be hit buy unexpected problems that might affect deliverables. Collaborations are inherently much more difficult to manage than when dealing with your own team. Especially if there is not a good match-up of working practices or company values. Perhaps looking for an alignment of core values is a foundational aspect of a solid collaborative process.

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, especially that aspect that a partner is delivering because its outside of your own area of expertise, can be particularly fraught with difficulties.

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 as each project dictates, are becoming much more commonplace. They are delivering significant projects more efficiently than the establish one-stop shop approach.

You have to get in the boat

The image chose 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 manning that rudder at the back. Those seem logical additions to any multifaceted task.

One person focused on keeping things on track and another responsible for overseeing the team and ensuring everyone is pulling together as needed.

In my experience, both roles can sometimes be handled by one person. But generally, an individual with the ability to look to the horizon and keep things on track is not usually best placed to also deal with the day-to-day management tasks. They are divergent skills rarely found I one person.

As in the boat analogue, one person is looking forward and outward, whilst the other is focused inwardly. 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, and 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.