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A Partnership's Foundation: The Common Mission
Business Journal

A Partnership's Foundation: The Common Mission

Wrongly assuming you and your collaborator want the same goal will cripple your alliance

by Rodd Wagner and Gale Muller

In the late 1990s, a group of researchers from two universities and the U.S. Naval Warfare Center recruited 112 young men and women and paired them randomly to see how well each partnership could fly a combat mission in an F-16 flight simulator. All the "pilots" were given a 45-minute hands-on training session. For each pair, one of the volunteers flew the plane. The other gathered information, set airspeed, and called up different weapons systems. Both could fire the weapons.

Collaboration is more than friendship or collegiality, more than being in the same office or working for the same firm.

The pairs received conflicting objectives that forced them to make difficult choices. They were told to survive enemy fire, fly a predetermined route that covered four destination markers called "waypoints," and shoot down enemy aircraft. "This scoring scheme presented a strategic dilemma for teams, as the three objectives were incompatible," wrote the researchers. "For example, flying directly toward all waypoints placed the team in great risk and left little time for fighting enemy planes. Alternatively, actively engaging enemy planes left little time for reaching waypoints." There was no way to get to all the waypoints without encountering enemy aircraft because that was where the enemy planes were typically circling.

Going into the test, the pairs displayed differing levels of what the researchers called a "shared mental model" of the challenge. The scientists were curious to know not just how well each pair coordinated in completing the mission, but how well they cooperated, how well they assumed their separate roles, how much they liked the activity, and the intensity of their "team spirit."

Each pair flew six missions that took about 10 minutes. While the duos' performance improved with practice, those who were more "in sync" at the beginning continued to stay better focused through the missions. Partners who shared a similar view of the challenge did better than the other pairs throughout the experiment. Working together well, the scientists concluded, requires a common view of the mission "above and beyond simple shared task knowledge."

The foundation for all partnerships

What is true for flying a simulated combat assignment applies to all of your collaborative endeavors. A common mission is the foundation for all partnerships.

Collaboration is more than friendship or collegiality, more than being in the same office or working for the same firm, more than proximity or mutual appreciation. It occurs only when you and an ally strive for a definitive accomplishment -- passing work between yourselves, "putting your heads together," or doubling up on a task neither of you could accomplish alone. For this reason, the relationship is unique. It exists to serve the goal. It lasts only until the mission is accomplished. Once the objective is reached, the partnership must adopt a new goal or it dissolves.

Although a strong friendship often emerges from collaboration, the partnership itself ends once there is no longer a shared, uncompleted objective facing the two people. Coauthors are partners until their book is finished. Astronauts are confederates only until the space mission returns to Earth. It's the active, unresolved case that makes partners of two fellow prosecutors.

Three statements from the Gallup research proved to be best at assessing the degree to which both people in a partnership are pursuing the same objective:

  • We share a common goal.
  • We have a common purpose for what we do.
  • We believe in the same mission in life.

Respondents were asked to rate their agreement with each of these statements from 1 ("strongly disagree") to 5 ("strongly agree"). To be categorized as reaching a "good" level on having a common mission, respondents must average at least 3.6 on the three statements above. To be "exceptional," they must strongly agree to each one.

Although a shared mission is essential, maybe even obvious, the lack of this basic concurrence is where many pairs fail. Only one in four people in poor partnerships agree they have a common goal or purpose with the other person. In many cases, both think they are on the same page, but when limits of time, money, or attention force difficult choices, it becomes clear the two have conflicting priorities. Only 9 percent of those in poor partnerships say they were "very successful" at reaching their goal. It's difficult to do if you're not aiming at the same target.

Your primary qualification to participate in a partnership is your ability to help fulfill the mission the two of you share. The same is true of your counterpart. Therefore, the person you select as a collaborator is likely to be different than someone you would choose as a friend, date, neighbor, or roommate. However much you may like someone, think highly of his abilities, or admire her determination, you would be foolish to embark on a partnership unless both of you agree on the objective and bring something unique to its achievement.

You can't assume your partner's motivations are the same as your own; there's a good chance they're not.

Partnerships produce something more than just the happiness of the two participants. Two college roommates are not collaborators; two classmates working together on a paper for a shared grade are. Next-door neighbors are not partners, but they are if they team up to argue against their city's plan to extend the road on which they live. Two mothers of elementary-school-aged girls may be on cordial terms, but they are not a team until they volunteer to lead their daughters' Girl Scout troop.

One mission, different motivations

Although you and your collaborator must agree on your mission, you don't need to have the same reasons for pursuing it. Successful partners often have different motivations. This usually does not hinder the alliance, particularly if both of you understand the driving force motivating the other and work to see those hopes fulfilled.

In the last years of his life, Ulysses S. Grant needed money. He was bankrupt and suffering from terminal throat cancer. Mark Twain needed a bestseller for his fledgling publishing company. Their personal missions overlapped in their desire to see Grant's autobiography published. The two-volume Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant was both a financial and literary success, a bestseller of its time that earned Grant's family more than $400,000 and strengthened Twain's company. Grant and Twain had disparate reasons for wanting to see the book published, but they agreed on what they planned to send to the printing presses.

Motivations are often unique and deeply personal things, which complicates the issue of agreeing on the goal. You can't assume your partner's motivations are the same as your own; there's a good chance they're not. One of you may see success on a major project as a chance to justify higher pay, while the other wants company-wide recognition. One attorney may want to win a big case to secure a promotion, while the other wants the chance to work on even larger cases. While one police officer likes locking up criminals, his partner most enjoys the daily interaction with law-abiding residents. In the best partnerships, both people not only agree on the mission, they understand why their counterpart finds it meaningful.

"My partner and I planned to complete a nature trail in the woods," said one man Gallup interviewed. "We thought we understood what needed to be done," he said, but they ultimately became discouraged and stopped working on the trail "because we did not see the big picture and the end goal clearly enough."

Another respondent complained her counterpart lacked the same intensity she had for a new electronic reporting system designed to save their company millions of dollars. "My partner could not visualize the importance of our task or was focused on other objectives," she said. Consequently, the project failed. "The difference in this partnership compared with successful ones I've had would be that I saw this as a cost saver for a billion-dollar operation, and she saw it as an unnecessary task."

How can two people be successful working together if they don't move toward the same objective? How can a canoe be paddled in two directions at once? While a shared goal alone is not enough to create a functional pair, without it, the two people are working at cross-purposes. A common mission unites disparate but complementary personalities. It elevates a working relationship above an arms-length negotiation, peaceful coexistence, or outright antagonism.

"I serve on the board of directors of my subdivision with a guy who is about 15 years older than me," said one man. "We have very different management styles, and we often clash very hard when working on the board. However, last summer we were in agreement on whether our subdivision should be part of the city. We worked long and hard, gathering petitions from our neighbors about the 'cityhood' issue. We agreed on the objective, and by and large, we agreed on the process to achieve it. On this project, it was easy to get along with him. While at times we really hate each other personally, somehow we can put it aside and start anew when another project begins."

The Eight Elements of a Powerful Partnership

Great partnerships don't just happen. Whether your joint mission is to build a successful company, coach a team, improve the government, do something spectacular for a charity, or any other worthy goal, all successful partnerships share the same crucial ingredients. When all these elements combine, partnerships become not just effective in accomplishing the mission, but also personally rewarding, sometimes intensely so.

Complementary Strengths: Everyone has weaknesses and blind spots that create obstacles to reaching a goal. One of the most powerful reasons for teaming up is working with someone who is strong where you are weak, and vice versa. Individuals are not well-rounded, but pairs can be.

A Common Mission: When a partnership fails, the root cause is often that the two people were pursuing separate agendas. When partners want the same thing badly enough, they will make the personal sacrifices necessary to see it through.

Fairness: Humans have an instinctive need for fairness. Because the need for fairness runs deep, it is an essential quality of a strong partnership.

Trust: Working with someone means taking risks. You are not likely to contribute your best work unless you trust that your partner will do his or her best. Without trust, it's easier to work alone.

Acceptance: We see the world through our own set of lenses. Whenever two disparate personalities come together, there is bound to be a certain friction from their differences. This can be a recipe for conflict unless both learn to accept the idiosyncrasies of the other.

Forgiveness: People are imperfect. They make mistakes. They sometimes do the wrong thing. Without forgiveness, the natural revenge motives that stem from friend-or-foe instincts will overpower all the reasons to continue a partnership, and it will dissolve.

Communicating: In the early stages of a partnership, communicating helps to prevent misunderstandings; later in the relationship, a continuous flow of information makes the work more efficient by keeping the two people synchronized.

Unselfishness: In the best working relationships, the natural concern for your own welfare transforms into gratification in seeing your comrade succeed. Those who have reached this level say such collaborations become among the most fulfilling aspects of their lives.


Rodd Wagner and Gale Muller recently completed five years of research identifying and analyzing the crucial dimensions of a successful partnership. Their book, Power of 2: How to Make the Most of Your Partnerships at Work and in Life, is the product of that research.

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