I consult, write, and speak on running better technology businesses (tech firms and IT captives) and the things that make it possible: good governance behaviors (activist investing in IT), what matters most (results, not effort), how we organize (restructure from the technologically abstract to the business concrete), how we execute and manage (replacing industrial with professional), how we plan (debunking the myth of control), and how we pay the bills (capital-intensive financing and budgeting in an agile world). I am increasingly interested in robustness over optimization.

I work for ThoughtWorks, the global leader in software delivery and consulting.

Thursday, August 31, 2017


"Greed and patience don't live together very well."

-- Keith Jackson, ESPN 30 for 30, Who Killed the USFL?

Businesses rely on a network of suppliers to operate and grow, including providers of components, back-office operations, distribution, marketing, retail, information technology and even office supplies. They do this for a variety of reasons, ranging from areas of specialty (assembling large finished goods is different from manufacturing small, precision components), depth of expertise (some companies are better at selling things than making things), accessibility of labor (difficult to hire in a location where there are too many jobs chasing too few employees), and appeal to the people with the skill set (a wholesaler doesn't offer that much career growth for an attorney).

All relationships, whether personal or commercial, are based on need. A buyer looking for widgets will go to another supplier if they can't get the widgets they're looking for. Similarly, a seller may choose not to sell widgets to a cheapskate buyer, and will find other customers instead.

Although rationally the statement of cash flows should triumph in commercial relationships, we're very often asked to extend our balance sheets to help someone else. In a commercial context, this is the point at which terms like "supplier" and "vendor", "client" and "customer" are ditched in favor of the aspirationally higher ground implied by the word "partner". Rather than evaluating transactionally (this relationship comes at a high cost to me), we evaluate strategically (this relationship is important to me).

Choosing to underwrite a shortcoming in a relationship is to make a leap of faith that there will be tangible or intangible rewards for doing so. The executive who keeps changing the specifications but always gives a glowing recommendation, the company that provides your firm with the annual revenue if not the timely cash flows. A partner puts up with deficiencies because they get much more out of the relationship.

Partnership, then, encompasses more than just a relationship of need, but a relationship worth it to both parties to make sacrifices to sustain. When we partner, we each agree to ebbs and flows in the relationship - "in sickness and in health" - and that we will not merely tolerate, but accommodate. A seller that has to roll somebody off a team because they can't travel; a buyer that has to reduce the amount they spend. In these situations, a partner sets aside the short-term impairment for the long-term benefits of continuity and consistency.

Of course, there are more benefits than merely convenience. Each partner changes independently, and those changes keep the partnership relevant and fresh. In the process, each learns continuously from the other, evolves what they do and matures how they do it. Strong partnerships make stronger individuals.

Partnership implies equivalency. Yet the commercial world is full of alleged "partnerships" that are superior-subordinate, making them inherently unbalanced. Companies stay in condescending or even abusive relationships because they're afraid of the uncertainty of the alternative. Sellers do this because suckling at the teat of easy revenue is far easier than hustling new business. Buyers do this because they feel held hostage by a supplier. Even though it comes at a high commercial cost (squeezed margins) and high human cost (second class status and compromised careers for those involved), such business "partnerships" can last for a long time.

Egalitarian partnership, then, is more often wishful thinking than willful practice.

Whatever else they may do, partners do not try to get the better of one another. If one party feels it has to out-maneuver the other in every contract negotiation, pad or dispute every invoice, cast doubt on quality or contribution well after delivery as a means of finagling a discount, or flaunt payment terms, it isn't a partnership. This isn't competition that makes for stronger individuals and better outcomes, it's subversion that prioritizes individual gain over mutual outcome.

There's nothing wrong with transactional relationships, and if we're honest, most commercial engagements don't have the potential to become genuine partnerships. Partnership is investment, and like all investments, there's only so many you can make and maintain. Over-using the term and confusing one type of relationship for another does the people and companies you do business with a disservice because it implies a commitment to them that you're not making. Transact faithfully with all (the world is a better place when it gets by on trust), and partner intensely with those who equally benefit from your association.