After years of political turmoil and the rise to power of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister in 2018, the ‘developmental state’ as a model for economic growth and development was jettisoned – at least discursively – and the government set a reform agenda focused on democratisation and liberalisation. However, central planning is still deeply rooted in the seed sector and seed plays the role of political commodity. Governance and transformation processes find themselves in a complex – if not contradictory – environment in Ethiopia that on the one hand stimulates market-led and participatory approaches but on the other sustains hierarchy and political control. Our study draws from the literature on cross-sector partnerships and explores the role and strategies of facilitators of Integrated Seed Sector Development in mobilising sources of power to exercise control over the Regional Seed Core Group – a new governance arena – and in its contribution to transforming the seed sector. We attribute part of the success of their strategies to carefully blending hierarchical with collaborative modes of governance and strategically mobilising power of a formal authority. This first insight offers a contribution to the literature on collaborative governance that is predominantly based on cases from western societies and mature democracies. Our second insight is that ideational power from a non-state actor is a much-needed counterweight to formal authority. And third, whilst mobilising political power may be necessary in a context like Ethiopia – where having formal authority is a key asset for getting things done – it is not without risks. We share these insights not only for scientific debate, but also for policymakers and practitioners attempting to transform systems in similar contexts with a long tradition of centralising power.