What I Learned About Technology Partnerships in a Refugee Camp

I was sitting in the hot sun one afternoon in the Kurdish region
 of Northern Iraq in 1991.  I was a member of the US military, and along with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) we were establishing a security zone and refugee camp for the Kurdish people who had been displaced from their homes following their unsuccessful uprising against Saddam Hussein and his Desert Storm-defeated Iraqi Army.

In the course of setting up the refugee camp, we established a central point where potable (drinkable) water could be drawn from a gigantic water blivet (if you’ve never seen one, imagine an enormous whoopee cushion).  The Kurds would fill their jugs at the water point and haul the water back to their camp site.  In the course of many thousands of people filling up water jugs at a central point, there was a fair amount of water run-off, which formed into little rivers in the dirt.

The Kurds – as they and their ancestors have done for millennia – dammed up some of the mini-rivers to form small pools that they used to wash their feet.  This became a popular foot-washing hangout for the refugees.

All this was fine, until someone in from either the UNHCR or US military looked upon this with a developed-world mindset and declared it unsanitary, being so close to a water point.

As I sat nearby, I watched the US Army Engineers descend upon the water point with an onslaught of heavy machinery and precision teamwork to solve this “problem”.  I had a unique vantage point, where I could watch a highly efficient western aid effort apply the latest technologies and processes to create safe and effective water egress from a water point, and not far away watch a throng of confused Kurds wondering what was going on.

Within a very short period, ground had been properly graded, trenches had been dug, and gravel had been poured into the trenches.  All the excess water disappeared, and the water point was returned to its mud-free, pristine beauty.  The Engineers high-fived each other and took off to solve their next problem, leaving behind a bunch of Kurds looking upon the new system and wondering why they couldn’t wash their feet there anymore.

It was small snippet from one day of many, but I often think about it when I see situations involving groups of people come together to form business partnerships.  To be sure, most of those start with more common language and social customs than the US-Kurdish story above, but in this day of global partnerships the differences between that story and a number of business partnerships I have seen aren’t all that great.

Although it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, I’ve always kept the term “goal congruency” in mind when I’m helping teams establish partnerships.  Goal congruency refers to the simple idea that everyone has to be moving toward the same objective.  Some specific ideas:

1. Establishing goal congruency is hard work and if it doesn’t feel like hard work, then it’s probably being ignored.  When two companies are discussing a partnership, they incorrectly think they have established goal congruency around lightweight ideas such as “we both seek revenue growth”, or “our solutions will be strengthened”.  Companies – and individuals – have very real objectives that lie beneath the surface of common partnership platitudes.  If you don’t dig for them, which can be uncomfortable, then you may miss the one thing that can make or break the success of your venture.

2. Partnerships need to have a common language around success criteria.  How will you know your partnership is working?  What are the objective measurements?  What assumptions must prove to be true in order for the partnership to achieve those measurements?  Again – this is hard work, but it helps prevent one company from equating success with “efficient water run-off” while the other is silently thinking that success equals “clean feet”.

3. Power imbalances are often inherent in technology partnerships.  In many partnerships there is what I often call the elephant/mouse dynamic – something I’ll write more about later.  The power imbalance causes the elephant (big company) to exert too much pressure on the mouse (small company) because in many such cases they perceive the establishment of the partnership delivers more value to the mouse.  Variations of “our partnership will make your company incredibly successful” are familiar to those who have been the mouse in these negotiations.  If the power imbalances are not addressed through rigorous communication and governance, then at some point the elephant surprises the mouse one day with a couple tons of gravel and some earth-movers.

Despite the story about the water point, I was proud of what we accomplished during that spring in 1991, and certainly the many Kurdish friends I made there were happy with how quickly their security and basic human needs had been improved in such a short period of time.  But the distance from a dusty refugee camp to the conference rooms of today are not all that great.  People are people, and if you don’t take the time to inexpensively deal with potential communication problems early, then you’ll certainly expensively deal with them later.


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are not constructive, excessively snarky, or off-topic.

  • Keith

    I really like the concept of “goal congruency” mentioned in this post. Every business partnership that I have been involved in that went really well (maybe 50% I would say) had this as a common theme.

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