Collaboration: What are the Real Factors for Success?
7 February 2013 at 9:19 am
The potential for collaborative projects to deliver positive social change, innovation and cost-savings is undoubtable. What is not so clear is how to ensure a collaboration will be a success argues Liz Skelton, Principal Consultant and Senior Manager at Social Leadership Australia.
Recent articles in Pro Bono Australia have pointed to both the growing trend in collaboration across the private, public and Not for Profit sectors in both in the UK and the USA (‘Is Collaboration the New Competition?’) at the same time as reporting that, in fact, many collaborations are failing (‘Charities Need Better Collaboration for Impact – Report’).
The potential for collaborative projects to deliver positive social change, innovation and cost-savings is undoubtable. What is not so clear is how to ensure a collaboration will be a success. There is a lot of admirable talk about shared clarity of purpose, trust and the willingness to embrace new ways of working together, but the reality of any truly collaborative venture will really put these sentiments to the test. Good intentions are not enough.
At Social Leadership Australia (SLA) we believe there are two factors that will determine the success or failure of a collaboration.
The first is recognising when to collaborate and when it is best to go it alone. The second is having the courage and skill to bring the underlying competitive energies between the collaborative parties to the fore and leverage them, instead of pretending they don’t exist.
The allure of collaboration
Talk of collaboration is everywhere. Government departments are encouraging NGOs to work in collaboration to achieve sustainable outcomes; NGOs espouse the benefits of collaborative practice; corporates talk about collaboration being the way forward for good CSR.
The allure of collaboration as the answer to many of our challenges is strong—that combining forces, sharing thinking and ideas is the way forward. In many cases it is. But if we are not clear about what collaboration is and when it’s needed, we may actually be copping out.
When collaboration is really a cop out
SLA works with hundreds of change agents and senior leaders in the corporate, government and community sectors, and we see collaboration as the core leadership challenge for most of the ‘systems’ we work with. We believe we will not make progress on our hardest social and economical issues unless we collaborate. But many people may be ‘collaborating’ when they have the capacity and resources to do the work themselves.
As Janine O’Flynn wrote back in 2009:
“Collaboration is not a panacea for tackling all organisational activities. Most of what organisations strive to achieve, is, and should be, done alone.”
Knowing when to collaborate and when to simply exercise your own authority to act is critical. We have worked in organisations where collaboration has been the first response—and hours of time have been spent in meetings with people who were not able to make progress together. But what was required was for the people in authority to make a decision, rather than trying to reach consensus.
Many organisations believe they are collaborating when often the harder work of making tough decisions or having conflict with the different views is being put off.
Real collaboration takes us outside our comfort zone
‘Collaboration’ is often confused with ‘partnership’. A partnership is where we draw on our associates or fellow organisations to work together. Our partners bring skills or resources to the table that we don’t have—and we may like each other and enjoy working together. That’s great and a lot of good work gets done that way, but it’s not collaboration.
As many writers on this subject have pointed out, the increasing complexity and uncertainty we operate in today means that at some stage (if not all the time) organisations will be required to work across functions or sector to be able to progress—or even to survive. This type of collaboration is not usually undertaken by choice.
A challenge or opportunity emerges which forces us to have to engage differently, or go outside of our own four walls to find the solutions. That’s when the real work of collaboration is required and that’s when it gets hard.
When to collaborate
Collaboration should not be seen as a goal in itself. Collaboration is only required when no one entity has the resources or authority to make the required change. When making progress depends on the whole ‘system’ being able to engage with people, organisations and communities who hold different views, beliefs and ideas, this is collaboration. When the system as a whole has to find a way to think and work together to make progress—such as we will have to do to tackle climate change, the divide between public and private education, and reconciliation between Indigenous and other Australians. This is the work of adaptation.
Conflict is the ‘gold’ of collaboration
Finding a way to work with the competing values, needs or agendas within a collaboration is difficult. Many attempts fail because we struggle to work with the inevitable conflict that will arise. When we come up against difference we see it as something we need to change; we seek to convince others of our rightness or try to manage it. In fact the difference or conflict is where the gold of collaboration lies.
As Arnold Mindell, developer of process work and Deep Democracy says, “conflict is the pregnancy of the future”. The solutions we are trying to co-create lie in our capacity to mine the very differences we all bring to a collaboration. This requires organisations to develop adaptive skills and work with courage, and curiosity.
Let’s be honest. Working with other people who see the world differently to us is hard work, it’s always easier to go with whoever seems to have the best idea at the time, and work with what we know, but increasingly this is no longer becoming an option.
Whilst true collaboration is hard and takes longer, the potential impacts in our communities and benefit to our organisations is greatest when we have brought the best and the worst of all parties to the table.
So perhaps the central leadership question for us all is, are we ready and willing to explore what needs to change—in ourselves and others—to truly collaborate?
About the author: Liz Skelton is Principal Consultant and Senior Manager at Social Leadership Australia (SLA). Skelton has had 18 years’ experience in leadership roles in NGOs in Australia and the UK. She is the author, with Geoff Aigner, of a new book on Australian Leadership to be published by Allen & Unwin in 2013. Social Leadership Australia is the leadership centre at The Benevolent Society, Australia’s first charity. The Benevolent Society is a Not for Profit and non-religious welfare organisation.
 Janine O’Flynn, The cult of collaboration in public policy. Australian National University. 2009 National Council of the Institute of Public Administration Australia.