Building Innovation Partnerships

By: Greg Butler
Innovation and Partnership are words often used and less often deeply understood. When combined, I am sure even less so. This is most likely because people practice these two competencies at a superficial level at best. At the same time global education is at an inflection point – with a growing distance between traditional delivery and the outcome of students’ success in life. We can no longer count on education systems to ‘fix’ education in isolation, the challenge will require multiple stakeholders working across organizational and sectorial boundaries to collaborate and innovate in continual inquiry based cycles of improvement. It is the gaps between and the intersection of the various education stakeholders where real innovation and transformation will happen. This is way more complex than approaches used in the past. Innovation at scale, in the current operating environment, is highly unlikely to happen!
Commonly it seems that many people in education may confuse real partnership with activities like sponsorship. They see partnerships as a way to gain access to resources, particularly funding, that might not be otherwise available. And this is a valid reason to look at a transactional form of partnership, which is common today, and forms the most common driver for partnering. However while such a focus may increase access to resources it is unlikely to support the type of innovation and collaboration that will generate totally new thinking and learning needed to address the bigger challenges we face.
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Not all partnerships are the same; many tend to focus on transactional working, on solving technical problems. Challenges like how can we fund a new program or how can we increase access to computers? These are all valid challenges, however they won’t deliver transformational results. Typically the outputs are actions and the relationships transactional, which is not enough for real innovation and transformation to happen.
Deeper partnerships require deeper partnering skills. Greater levels of change can happen when you operate with a process focus, on working together to change how things are done. “How might the school/system integrate visiting experts in the curriculum?” For success at this level there needs to be a focus on interpersonal issues with the output being relationships that facilitate people working together to achieve new processes.
The deepest level of education transformation requires the most complex partnering skills; with the ability to enable people to work together at a transformation level. Core is addressing the ‘un-discussable’, facilitating people to address core issues of drivers, culture, values and behaviors. A focus on these can facilitate working on questions such as “How should we organize curriculum if student learning is our highest priority?” When you get people working together across boundaries on the ‘un-discussable’, real innovation and lasting transformation can be the output.





Collaboration Focus

Inputs and Outputs

Interpersonal Issues

Addressing the ‘un-discussable’


Tangible resources and actions

Relationships that facilitate people working together to achieve new processes

Co-created and implemented innovative and transformative solutions

Just as you wouldn’t expect a surgeon without any training to successfully operate on you, managing partnership processes in Relational and Transformative partnerships require high levels of brokering competencies (see And just as you wouldn’t teach students without tools to measure performance, tools to measure partnership capacity are critical (we will shortly release a free online tool to do this;
In summary, innovation partnerships are critical for both innovation and partnership to flourish, at the system, school and classroom levels.
Greg Butler is the Founder and Partner in Collaborative Impact, a social innovation partnership that works to improve the quality of partnership design, management and implementation, and help to increase effectiveness in addressing major challenges facing humanity. Over the course of his career as a teacher, university lecturer, entrepreneur and partnership broker, the keys to his success have been his ability to bridge the sectors and build partnerships and partnership capacity in the organizations he has worked in. 

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1 Comment

Kelly Cross

Greg, I enjoyed the article. I agree that traditional partnerships have commonly been used as a means of funding "business as usual". A far cry from innovation and partnerships where both parties learn and grow. Rather than focusing on global competition, you have introduced global interaction and collaboration as a means to discuss best practices and build leadership capacity, to transform education. The potential for teacher and student learning is tremendous. We need to help make this happen. Thanks also for sharing information about the Partnership Brokers. I would love to learn more.

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