Made Tech Blog

How to play nicely in a supplier partnership

Your team might not always be able – or have the choice – to be the only supplier on a delivery.  A delivery team needs the skills and experience to be successful. Sometimes to win and deliver work, you may need support from a partner organisation, or you’ll be invited to join a consortium of several suppliers.

Here are some thoughts on working well with supplier partners, from my perspective as a delivery manager.

2 suppliers working as 1 team

When 2 suppliers work closely together, there’ll often be a lead and a subcontractor. The lead is responsible for delivering the project and its success. The supporting partner helps them do that. 

All partner projects are different. Insights and experiences can vary a lot depending on whether you’re the lead or supporting partner, how many people are on a project, and for how long. 

Your people will form a single team to deliver the work, so you’ll be working closely together. You’ll need to do a lot of relationship building, and getting to know people and how they communicate. 

The supporting team should have at least 2 people on the project at the development phase – this is a safety thing. This is often a delivery manager and a business analyst to start with. It’s good to have someone by your side, especially at the start of the partnership when ways of working have yet to be figured out.  

The team may grow and diversify over time. Remember that anyone new will have to learn to work with the other supplier, and this can mean different things depending on your discipline. You might have a great partnership working within your joint team of business analysts, but integrating engineers or designers could bring new challenges.

I prefer to have people from both suppliers working on each task, so both are contributing to every aspect of the delivery. If you’ve been brought in to supply a more niche skillset, this could be trickier. If this is the case, make sure you’re not working in isolation. Run show and tell sessions often. Establish boundaries and responsibilities. Everyone should be happy with their tasks and how to deliver them.

Navigating challenges

When 2 organisations with different ways of working come together, you’ll need to deal with challenges. Let’s go through some of these and how you might navigate them.

Accommodating cultures

The challenge
There may be differences in the way teams work. For example, you could have one easy-going, open team with a big feedback culture. But they could be partnered with a team that has a more rigid corporate culture. 

The solution
Get people collaborating as much as possible. With engineering roles, for example, you’ve got a great opportunity to pair people up to do group coding and knowledge sharing sessions. 

Make sure there’s a safe space from the start for them to work together freely, focused on the problem and not the badges they’re wearing. It’s not an us-and-them thing. Both teams need to collaborate as a group. 

Boundaries and responsibilities

The challenge
If you’re the lead partner, the final decisions are yours. But the lead partner is usually also the one accepting the commercial and reputational risk. 

The solution
If you’re the lead, be open to the other suppliers’ suggestions and ways of working. Setting out ways of working at the very start of a partnership can help. Make sure both parties are open to receiving constructive feedback and create a forum for that to happen. 

There needs to be a level of trust. It’s better to be honest and create an environment where concerns can be raised rather than going weeks without saying anything. 

If you’re the supporting partner, you should be able to challenge the lead and constructively suggest things. If you do need to challenge a decision, choose your approach wisely. Difficult conversations between partners should not be thrashed out in front of your customer. 

In either case, as a delivery manager you may need to support your team when a decision doesn’t go your way. And that’s OK, as long as all voices have been heard along the way. It’s more about making sure everyone has the space to share their opinions or voice a concern, and feel like they’ve had influence. 

Commercial sensitivities

The challenge
Make sure your team protects its interests and that your team is commercially viable in itself.

The solution
If you’re the lead partner, be careful about how many people you’re committing to a project. You need to control the work that’s done, so make sure partners in your consortium are working within your scope and change management process. 

If you’re a supporting partner, as much as you want to support the lead, you need to protect your own interests. You can’t just throw people at a project if you don’t have the budget for it. 

Be as transparent as you can. The lead partner doesn’t need to tell the supporting partner how much they’re charging the client. And that’s fine, because it’s commercially sensitive. But both parties should be open about what you’re contributing and where the limits are set.

Work in harmony

We all have different ways of working. But with the right approach and attitude, you can work in harmony together and deliver high-value projects.

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About the Author

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Senior Delivery Manager