What hasn’t worked in cross-sector partnerships that you’ve participated in in the past?

When I asked this question to 50 leaders from Albuquerque, New Orleans, San Antonio, San Francisco, and Seattle involved with the second round of The Integration Initiative, it took them less than five minutes to write down more than 75 answers to this question including (but certainly not limited to): superficial commitment, hidden agendas, turf issues, poor communication, suspiciousness, and somber processes.

What Hasn't Worked in Your Cross-Sector Partnership

These experiences are real, and powerful in shaping people’s assumptions about what they are entering into when they get involved in a cross-sector partnership. These expectations can trigger individuals’ least collaborative behaviors, spurring the people around the table end up focusing on “what’s in it for me?” and not “what will it take to achieve our intended result?” And once that happens, all their worst fears about this cross-sector partnership have been validated.

So, when you are building (or transforming) a cross-sector partnership, all of these experiences and assumptions have to be overcome. The big question is, how do you do it?

If this was an organization, the top brass might use their authority to set a vision and hold others accountable. Most people are used to working in settings where there’s pretty high levels of clarity about who’s in charge, what’s trying to be accomplished, what our roles are, and what will happen to us if we’re not contributing.

But, cross-sector partnerships are not organizations. In partnerships—particularly ones employing the principles of Collective Impact to address complex social and economic problems—there is a low level of clarity about authority, goals, roles and consequences, especially early on. In large part, this is because people and institutions have the choice to opt in or out, and there are no consequences for them either way.

So, what gets people and institutions engaged in a cross-sector partnership in a way that overcomes our negative expectations, and sets us on a path to achieve meaningful impact?


It might sound hokey, but trust is an important and underestimated ingredient to making a cross-sector partnership work. If members of a cross-sector partnership do not believe in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of their partners as well as the partnership itself, it is very difficult to keep them involved and achieve the partnership’s intended goals.

Through our investments and research we’re learning that Tuckman’s Group Development Model – you might be more familiar with the shorthand it created, form-storm-norm-perform–is applicable to cross-sector partnerships because it articulates the stages that a partnership and its representatives need to go through in order to build and maintain trust.

The Trust Building Cycle

In Living Cities’ research and grantee portfolio, we’ve observed that there’s a common trap that partnerships fall into relating to trust: they try to go straight from forming to performing, or as folks always say “get some early wins.”

Our research is also revealing that undertaking the storming and norming processes actually leads to performing sooner and more effectively than if you skip from forming to performing – a phenomenon we call the form-perform paradox. If you skip the storming and norming, the phases that establish trust and boundaries and clarity and consensus, it’s very difficult to perform successfully. (For a great example of the form-perform paradox in action, check out the case study called Partners for a Competitive Workforce: Insights from Solving Problems through Cross-Sector Partnerships.)

When I shared this learning with the leaders from the new Integration Initiative sites, one attendee responded in a way that you may be wanting to right now. He booed. It might not be the message you want to hear, but addressing conflict and building trust—while difficult and sometimes time-consuming—are necessary prerequisites for a cross-sector partnership to being able to implement work and achieve its goals.

How have you built trust among the members of a cross-sector partnership? What tools and resources have been most useful to you in this process? Share your experiences and feedback in the comments below, via email to agold@livingcities.org or on Twitter with @AKGold11 using #xsector.