Design to develop partnerships

Illustration by Tay Tuteur. Learn more about our illustrators.

Design to develop partnerships

Over the last several years, we’ve worked with a wide variety of teams who are figuring out how to work together — from new organizations and budding coalitions to long-established groups making changes. Some of these groups think of this process as ‘strategic planning,’ but we’ve found that a human-centered design approach is valuable to the building of successful collaborations. We call this type of work strategy + action planning, and we’ve learned a few things so far that we think might help others planning impactful partnerships and collaborations.

Start with something tangible, and think of your efforts as a pilot
Design is about creating something — whether it’s a product, system, or service. Sometimes, planning can feel much more abstract, setting high-level direction like a mission and vision or big goals like a 10 year plan. But once you have a direction, you have to figure out how to implement, and a design approach is perfect for having tangible conversations that raise different questions than an abstract idea. We ask partners: how will you accomplish the goals you’ve set out? How will that work? Where are the gaps between what you have now and what you want to be able to do? What are the steps along the way? Who will be involved in each? Focusing on the specific actions, even if it’s only a part of the bigger picture, exposes the opportunities to work together. And mentally and emotionally positioning the efforts as a pilot process allows space to explore, try, adjust and keep learning along the way

Learn from both those directly impacted & those leading the change 
Human-centered design starts with people and their experiences. Planning often starts with broad ideas, like addressing mental health or changing financial opportunities. Even when the experiences of people directly impacted are baked into those ideas, the people who are initiating the process may not always give the same care and attention to their own motivations and experiences. When we work with collaborative teams to plan their next steps, we seek to learn from not only the people impacted, but those who are leading the charge. We make time for one-on-one conversations and reflections from the team, and create spaces for all participants to learn from and about each other — so they are designing not only what they will do, but how they will work together. 

Use visualization to align and prioritize
Another technique we use is creating visualizations that explain the current and future states of how people, organizations, and opportunities interact. These visualizations help make assumptions real, and show where there are opportunities. For example, creating a journey map that shows how people access services from different organizations showcases the opportunities to work together and to better define the services of each individual organization. Once we have a visualization, and we’ve confirmed the assumptions and opportunities, we can use the visualization as a tool to talk about where to focus energy and attention, prioritizing the places that will help move things along. 

Be intentional about process to deepen relationships
It’s not that a design thinking approach is the best at planning — instead, we believe that it’s the emphasis on creating an intentional process that really helps partners successfully come together. Putting thought into what will happen in each conversation, who will take on the next steps, and what the outcomes should be leads to more opportunities for all the collaborators to actively participate and contribute. Through participation in this intentional process, partners develop stronger bonds, understand each other better, and ultimately can be more successful in their collective goals. 

Interested in learning more about how we use human-centered design to guide current collaborations and potential partnerships? Check out this case study on Tunnel Light. And while you’re at it, tell us about how you build successful partnerships — are there any tools or approaches that have been successful for you? Send us an email at or leave a comment below.

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