The collaborative cohort: Leading successful transformation in Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships

By Guy Neale

Be it the climate emergency, the evolving needs of empowered citizens, geo-political uncertainty, or the exponential rate of technological change, addressing the challenges of today far outstrip the capabilities of any single organisation.

Partnerships have become business as usual, combining capabilities to answer critical questions. The UK public sector is scaling cross-sector integration and collaboration through multi-stakeholder partnerships (MSPs). MSPs include joint programmes, mergers and acquisitions, strategic alliances, and joint ventures, bringing partners together to achieve shared goals in the pursuit of common good.

The collaborative transformation that takes place to establish and catalyse the performance of MSPs has multiple benefits for society, including improved public services and funding allocation – vital in an economic downturn. However, due to the complex interplay of opinions and priorities, these unions can be far from harmonious. Relational dynamics – multi-layered interactions within the wider partnership, organisations, teams, and between individuals – can cause friction and limit progress. So, how can leaders at the helm of collaborative transformation mitigate conflicting pressures while driving towards impactful goals?

UK public sector leaders are frustrated, but fulfilled

Throughout 2022, we explored the lived experience of nine high-ranking senior leaders and managers in the UK public sector to understand the impact of relational dynamics on collaborative transformation. Supported by a wider quantitative study of 36 individuals in various leadership levels and broader policy areas, our in-depth interviews found a clear consensus across a range of MSPs at varying maturity levels.

All interview participants felt a sense of optimism driven by their belief in the purpose of the MSP, and 89 percent expressed enjoyment and excitement in the opportunity to reshape the sector to address long-term systemic challenges. While these optimistic innovators recognised the advantages of MSPs, they struggled to manage differing perspectives between MSP stakeholders and felt conflicted between the needs of the partnership and their own organisation. The two most common feelings reported by participants were exhaustion and fulfilment. They described the necessity of ‘dogged determination’, and 44 percent were frustrated at the slowness and difficulty of getting things done. The same percentage experienced isolation, with participants feeling ‘lonely’ and ‘irrelevant’.

Six recommendations for MSP success

There is an impetus on the UK Government to take immediate action to develop tangible, formal support networks for public sector leaders. That said, these leaders can take practical steps to improve the collaborative transformation experience.

Based on participants’ first-hand experience of the MSP environment, our research identifies six pragmatic recommendations to maximise success. Each recommendation can be applied to all collaborative transformation projects across both the public and private sectors.

1. Set a vision and strategy, with space

Our research found that dynamics between individuals, rather than the ‘big blocks’ of organisational culture, most impacted collaborative transformation. To bring both individuals and big blocks together, leaders must set a clear but flexible shared vision and strategy, with space left for differences of ambition, culture, and identity. Partner Sponsors are key to maintaining commitment to the vision and strategy, sitting back from the MSP to provide appropriate support and ensure ongoing alignment.

2. Assign clear and accepted authorities

MSPs require the right type of leaders to lead in the right way at the right time. Named individuals with defined roles reduce friction, removing ambiguity through clarity of mission and responsibilities. The highest performing leaders demonstrate maturity, flexibility, and Emotional Intelligence (EQ), adopting a new way to lead. To find these agile leaders, public sector organisations need to nurture internal talent and protect employees from burn-out.

3. Focus on behaviour over structure

The behaviour of individuals within the MSP is a strong determinant of success, but transformation leaders often prioritise design of structures and roles. Collaborative transformation leaders are more likely to succeed when they cultivate behaviours that drive partnership outcomes. Effective behavioural definition and shaping such as ‘nudge theory’ can guide, or nudge, expected behaviours. Dissenting voices are important, but leaders must be ready to hold individuals to account if their behaviour turns from disruptive to destructive.

4. Prepare for political shifts through adaptive design

Of all the circumstances that impact collaborative transformation, political change was rated the second most influential. Political tumult is a foreseen but unknown change. Leaders may not be able to influence party politics but can apply adaptive design principles to build resilience so that when political shifts occur, the partnership adapts and strengthens rather than weakens and breaks. Adaptive design principles include simplifying critical enablers (e.g., modular IT platforms) and applying flexible HR processes for rapid team reconfiguration.

5. Capture the benefits of creative tension

Within a culture of honesty and openness, tension can become a powerful, positive force. MSPs can maximise the value of creative tension through psychological safety and radical candour, a leadership behaviour that provides teams with kind but clear feedback. For example, one interview participant set conditions for charity partners to constructively challenge global technology firms, exposing blind spots. When there is no need to avoid difficult conversations, leaders create safe spaces to explore perspectives and turn tension into opportunity.

6. Train hard, collaborate easily

The experiences of interview participants indicate a clear risk of burn-out and disillusionment. As MSPs become the norm, specific training and development programmes should prepare leaders for collaboration, considering Emotional Intelligence (EQ) alongside Intelligence Quotient (IQ). Partner Sponsors can support training by identifying gaps and acting as mentors.

By applying these recommendations, leaders can join the collaborative cohort; capitalising on relational dynamics and accelerating the achievement of outcomes that benefit society as a whole.

About the authors

Guy Neale PA Collaboration and design Expert Guy is an operating model design and transformation specialist working predominantly with Defence and Security clients. He has extensive experience designing new organisations and partnerships that knit the national security ecosystem together behind a common purpose.

Explore more

Contact the team

We look forward to hearing from you.

Get actionable insight straight to your inbox via our monthly newsletter.