It's the question that every member of a partnership dreads — but that many have to consider. No one is eager to dissolve a collaborative relationship prematurely. But as with any intimate relationship — a marriage, for example — it's not advisable to let a doomed professional partnership drag on simply to avoid the pain of a breakup.
Here are four warning signs that a business marriage can't be saved.
Priorities have changed dramatically.
Maybe you've had a child and are rethinking your commitments. Maybe a death or a divorce prompts your partner to do some soul-searching. Major life changes often force people to reorder their priorities, making a once-healthy partnership untenable. You can't wish those changes away.
"If you can't renegotiate the terms of the relationship and find new ways to work together, then it's probably time to part," says partnership guru Sarah Edwards, a former psychotherapist and the coauthor of Teaming Up.
It's still working, but it's no fun.
Lots of doomed partnerships manage to work — for a while. But when neither partner has any genuine enthusiasm for the collaboration, the partnership may be in for trouble.
"The obvious analogy is when a spouse comes home and says, 'I'm just not in love with you anymore,' " argues business coach Azriela Jaffe. "You may wish the two of you could work through it, but often you just can't."
It's still fun, but it's not working.
Lots of partners look forward to their collaboration and can't imagine working with anyone else. The problem is, not all partnerships are destined to generate winning ideas or products. That's not an argument for throwing in the towel early; but it is an argument for being realistic about the fruits of your collaboration — or lack of them.
"You can enjoy a terrific relationship and have lots of fun," says Jaffe. "But if the business or the product is going nowhere, then neither is the partnership."
Your partner gets a better offer.
Losing a partner to a more attractive opportunity is like losing a spouse to someone younger and more attractive, right? Wrong, says Sarah Edwards: "You should wish your partner well. In this respect, a business partnership is not like a marriage: You never promised 'till death do us part.' It's okay for people to go in different directions." And besides, she adds, you never want to burn your bridges to a former partner. "If you leave on good terms, your partner will owe you," she says, "and may even bring you into another partnership."
A version of this article appeared in the November 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.