Developing cross-department buy-in for ecosystem strategy really comes down to one skill - being a great storyteller.
The idea of a successful partnership ecosystem is often built on external stories we hear about other companies finding success through robust partnership networks. Those stories begin to shape an idea of what our story could look like, but they also tend to focus on the results.
This is often where the problems begin.
When people talk about SaaS, they often focus on a few key metrics: Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR), Total Lifetime Value (TLV), Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC Ratio), and Churn. We could pull other things in, but these four tend to rule the roost in my experience.
Departments will drill down into specific measures of success that create the foundation of these concepts. For partnerships, results are often connected to these points as ‘proof’ or ‘evidence’ of success. This gets leadership excited, and they start to plan based on what they see as solid evidence in the data.
Partnership professionals face an additional layer of a challenge because even after 23 years of SaaS there is not yet a universal understanding of the value and purpose of Partner ecosystems.
To get everyone on the boat, sitting in the right seat, and moving faster you need to tell a good story.
Elements of a good story
A good story has five basic elements: Good characters, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution.
Anyone working in partnerships right now is already seeing where I’m going with this because you’re in the middle of those stories now. It’s often forgotten or maybe never realized from the top that successful partnership programs can take 12-18 months to generate a return.
Even those returns may be marginal for another several months while the rhythms find their way into the organization. Those months of cost without tangible revenue can take a toll when you only look at the data.
Ecosystem work is collaborative, which means you need characters from across the entire organization to get involved. Much like a good book, these characters often get pulled in unexpectedly to help solve the problem of creating a robust ecosystem.
They stumble around, trying to stay in their own story without realizing they’ve been caught up in something special. The people around them, including their managers, may not understand their new commitments, and tension mounts as they try to explain a story they are only just starting to unwind.
The problem is that even a good story gets twisted in the retelling. Getting buy-in and maintaining narrative coherence means telling the story as often as possible, to as many people as possible, directly.
They will undoubtedly retell the story, but that’s why you have fancy things like OKRs, strategy plans, and roadmaps reflected in things like slide decks and recorded meetings that are readily accessible to anyone in the business.
The setting is literally every department in the business and extends with every new partnership agreement into other organizations. It becomes a sprawling, epic journey across cities, continents, conferences, and careers.
Unlike other departments, it’s not contained within the walls of the business and, in reality, demands those walls be torn down with things like data sharing, inbound/outbound referrals, deal registration, co-selling, commissions, collaborative development, and joint-marketing efforts.
More and more, ecosystems will demand interdependent processes that flow between multiple organizations freely yet securely. If people do not understand this setting, they will always struggle to visualize the narrative, and the walls will be difficult, if not impossible, to tear down.
Unlike a traditional novel where you alone get to define each character and plot twist, writing an ecosystem narrative is more like writing a ‘pick your own adventure story.
Other people in the org have ideas and want to contribute to how they think the narrative should go. You might be the main author as a Partnership leader but often lack total control of decisions in light of the C-Suite and Board jumping in to help out with new adventures.
You might find other characters jumping in enthusiastically as well, driving some initiative that later needs to be scaled back or completely stripped. That doesn't mean you aren’t responsible for the resolution, itself a prickly pear, but it does mean you need a strong central narrative with a clear vision for the story you are trying to tell.
You know that outside decisions may influence direction but that anyone following along will end up in the same resolution. Your goal here is to tell a compelling enough story that the number of adventures is limited, from top to bottom, and the way forward always appears clear.
The plot lives in the strategy and roadmap documents that have buy-in from every leader. These documents are the centralized view from which all Partnership decisions are made, a constant call back to the story being weaved throughout the organization.
Ecosystem development can be decimated by internal conflict if the narrative is not well established for each department. Every time you ask for support or resources, especially in the early days, presents an opportunity for conflict.
People don’t have time, don’t have the budget, or don’t see the point. They don’t know the story you’re trying to tell and questions naturally arise like:
- Will they take our sales?
- Will they reduce our professional service hours and revenue?
- Will outsourcing cost us our jobs in Customer Success and Support?
- Will they build to our standards or compromise our product integrity?
- Will they get us fined when they spam our customers with unwanted marketing?
- Why haven’t we seen any revenue after investing 12 months and hundreds of thousands of dollars - where’s our payback?
- We need some revenue soon, or we’ll need to find a new direction.
And that’s just the internal conflict.
Externally, partners need to share similar values and goals to your story and feel support as they engage with the organization.
This takes the form of a shared narrative - a joint vision for the outcomes that are indeed verified with the data collected along the way. If they don’t, the partnership is unbalanced and starts to pull the narrative off-track.
Objections start to come up like:
- We thought there would be more marketing support, but we can’t get a response from anyone.
- We’re unable to get API guidance from the product, so we’re going to have to push this effort.
- We’ve sent over 12 referrals but haven’t heard anything or received anything in return.
- We haven’t had a chance to get started on that because our sales reps are just too busy trying to close existing deals.
- We’d love to sponsor, but we just spent our budget with Partner X.
- I know we signed, but after looking at this more deeply, we don’t see the point.
Managing conflict through storytelling requires a considerate awareness of how the main narrative plays out within each group. It’s a bit of hierarchy where your Ecosystem Narrative is layered and aligned to org-specific narratives within each group.
Without these layers, it can be difficult for people to see themselves in the story
The resolution begins when the story you’ve told starts to show up in the data. You may start with a single narrative around a single program. The resolution for that arc might look like a certain number of active partners, supporting processes, and reporting to ensure the right things are being tracked and realized.
In the meantime, another arc shows up for another program, maybe even at the same time, and you are already being pulled into new directions.
And now for the prickly pear. The data you start with will likely be discouraging compared to the investment, and the demand for more evidence will be high. The resolution has started, but it’s not yet fully realized, and that’s because the resolution doesn’t really revolve around the data.
The story keeps going, shaped by the collaborative nature of storytelling you’ve created and continue to drive. Everyone has a solid understanding of the role their character plays, and you no longer have to carry the story alone.
You’ve helped build a culture where words like partnerships and ecosystem are not threats. Programs continue to mature with input from each department as they make Partnerships a critical part of their own success, reflected in their own metrics, and tied to the larger narrative of the organization’s success.
And you? You might eventually find someone else to take over the narrative while you step out into a new adventure, but you’ll never really stop thinking about what could be just around the bend. After all… no one else can write your story for you.