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Partnerships are not perfect solutions for tackling problems such as climate change, poverty or health

4 July 2022

The article at a glance

Multistakeholder partnerships in addressing society’s grand challenges often lead to ‘power asymmetries’ that stifle lasting progress, says a new study co-authored by Professor Shahzad (Shaz) Ansari of Cambridge Judge Business School.

Multistakeholder partnerships in addressing society’s grand challenges often lead to ‘power asymmetries’ that stifle lasting progress, says a new study co-authored by Professor Shahzad (Shaz) Ansari of Cambridge Judge Business School.

Partnerships among diverse groups and individuals are often seen as a key part of tackling some of society’s ‘wicked problems’ such as climate change, poverty and health, owing to the enormity of these grand challenges facing humankind.

Yet a new study co-authored by Professor Shaz Ansari of Cambridge Judge Business School cautions that such partnerships will not cure all such problems owing to power asymmetries that cause tension and prevent progress – so the paper highlights four indicators to show when power dynamics are impeding partnerships’ efficacy in addressing these huge societal problems.

Celebrating changes with no lasting impact

Neglecting power my lead to celebratory accounts of ‘successful’ change arising from these partnerships even when there is no lasting impact. If weaker parties are not included or coerced into agreeing to a solution, then the partnership should not be celebrated as a success. The root causes of the wicked problem may remain unaddressed, and the most marginalised actors are left worse off.

“Despite the well-meaning intentions of organisers and partners, collaborative partnerships often devolve into contentious negotiations and frequently fall short in addressing the problems they seek to ameliorate,” says the study published in the journal Organization Theory, which notes that most previous research focused on the complexity of wicked problems rather than power relations in addressing them.

The study acknowledges that partnerships can be beneficial in tackling these challenges, but focuses on how to improve “shortfalls” in many partnerships by ironing out the power dynamics.

“Many partnerships have focused on (readily observable and measurable) outputs rather than lasting impact, and we think that ironing out the power imbalance can shift the focus away from superficial change toward even greater progress in addressing society’s grand challenges,” says Shaz Ansari, Professor of Strategy & Innovation at Cambridge Judge.

Power differences at the negotiating table

The paper identifies four areas where there are power differences between actors in multistakeholder partnerships (MSPs) – collaboration, consciousness-raising, contention, and compliance – with the latter two representing substantial differences that call for steps by low-power stakeholders to yield more influence and produce better outcomes.

“Failure to account for power differences when planning and analysing MSPs may leave lower power partners conceding to demands to which they would not otherwise agree,” says the study. “To effect change, low-power stakeholders need to mobilise others and use social movement strategies to gain a seat at the negotiating table.”

The four indicators of disruptive power dynamics

The study describes four indicators of disruptive power dynamics:

  1. The views of critical stakeholders are excluded from deliberations among the partnership.
  2. Powerful entities are ‘exempted’ from compliance with agreements already reached on how to proceed in addressing grand challenges.
  3. Practices that govern discussions within the partnership restrict the participation of less powerful partners and thus reinforce the power inequality.
  4. The cost of implementing agreements are borne disproportionately by low-power stakeholders.

“Attending to these power differences can reveal why many MSPs for addressing grand challenges end up creating only superficial rather than substantive change in a field,” says the study. “Solutions that impose new or excessive burdens on low-power parties are unlikely to yield long-term progress on grand challenges because they render these problems more likely to re-emerge in the future.”

Concluding, the study says: “Society continues to face a plethora of grand challenges formed from intractable social and environmental problems, ranging from inequality to climate change, where collaboration is perhaps the only way forward. Attending to the dynamics of power in fields in which MSPs are attempted is a promising pathway to achieve more sustainable and just resolutions.”

The study – entitled “Confronting Power Asymmetries in Partnerships to Address Grand Challenges” – is co-authored by Barbara Gray of Pennsylvania State University, Jill Purdy of the University of Washington, Tacoma, and Shaz Ansari of Cambridge Judge Business School.

This article was published on

4 July 2022.