9 keys to successful collaboration

Collaboration is a word that is used very commonly in organisations.  In recent years it features prominently in the strategies and plans of many organisations, and it is not unusual for it to be an explicitly stated organisational value.  It is recognition by many organisations of the inter-dependency of work – individuals, teams and organisations alone often cannot achieve long-term and sustainable outcomes without collaborating with others.

Easy to say, hard to do!

As an organisational strategy or value, collaboration is easy to accept as a worthy intention.  It is, however, a little more difficult to get your hands around in practical terms.  Some organisations, particularly those with collaboration as an expressed value, often describe a set of collaborative behaviours.  This is helpful, but is not always sufficient, to drive collaboration.

Over recent years a few clients have asked us to run workshops to explore the practice of collaboration, often with the over-riding intention of helping participants identify practical strategies, relevant to their particular context, that they can employ back in the workplace.  A very reasonable request!

So, given this challenge, we have designed, tailored and run a number of variants on a collaboration workshop.  There are, however, two particularly interesting features of these workshops that have enabled us to generate some useful insights and knowledge (which we are sharing below):

  1. The workshops have been based on a social learning model where the participants themselves largely generate the content i.e. they are not run as an instructional or skills training session with the facilitator providing the core content.  The workshops are based on the participants drawing from their own experiences and extracting insights through appreciative inquiry story-telling.
  2. The workshops seek firstly to identify a working hypothesis of the pre-conditions/key underpinning factors for effective collaboration, before going on to identify practical strategies. To quote from one of the founding fathers of action learning, Kurt Lewin, there is nothing quite as practical as a good theory!

So, now that we have had well over 350 participants in this type collaboration workshop – which means there has been over 350 stories been shared about where they experienced a collaborative relationship – some really common and consistent themes have emerged about the pre-conditions for collaboration.  At its most basic this provides us with a really useful list or lens that is helpful in either planning for collaboration or diagnosing problems in relationships where collaboration is not quite working.

So, drumroll please… here are the 9 keys (pre-conditions) that need to be present to drive effective collaboration.  Depending on the nature of the situation or opportunity, there are likely to be different degrees to which these elements need to be present. Somewhat like a recipe, the elements below are akin to a ‘list of ingredients’ that are required, however the ‘quantity’ of each element will be dependent on the situation.  In some cases weakness in one element may require building a compensatory strength in other elements.  The key elements, in no specified order, are:

  1. Shared understanding of the issue / perspectives. Taking the time to understand the issues and perspectives of all involved is critical. This involves understanding not just the WHAT (the position) but the WHY (the interests.)
  2. Willingness / commitment to participate. Where a collaboration opportunity exists and is recognised collaborative effort will be optimised where there is a commitment or willingness to participate. This can be achieved through either voluntary or directed means, although likely to be more effective if voluntary.
  3. Clear and shared goals. Goals that are shared by all collaboration partners need to be agreed and understood upfront that articulate the outcomes seeking to be achieved. These also provide the frame that supports ‘give and take’ and working with differences.
  4. Mutual benefits/buy-in. There needs to be benefits for all the parties in the collaboration effort with the aim of creating a ‘win-win’ situation. It is important for all parties to understand and believe in the mutual benefits that will flow from their collaboration.
  5. Trusting relationships. Effective collaboration is more likely in situations where there is (pre-existing) trust, respect, honesty and openness in relationships. Where levels of trust are not strong other elements in this model may need to be further emphasised.
  6. Right skills, knowledge, behaviours and support structures. The effectiveness of the collaborative effort will be somewhat dependent on having people involved that have the necessary skills, knowledge and behaviours that are required for the task at hand and are supported and encouraged to use them.
  7. Appropriate governance arrangements. Clear and agreed protocols ideally exist around such things as roles and responsibilities, decision-making processes, timeframes, scope, progress reviews and evaluation. These will likely be more prominent in projects, however some protocols or principles may be desirable in less formal circumstances.
  8. Senior leadership commitment and support. The willingness to participate will in some cases be enhanced by a strong and visible commitment by senior leaders. This may be especially important when there may not be true reciprocity in the situation providing ‘mutual benefit’ to all parties.
  9. There is a situation / opportunity that will benefit from a collaborative effort. It seems like an obvious condition, but collaboration for ‘collaborations sake’ does not guarantee a better outcome. The choice depends largely on whether individual achievements can deliver the group’s performance aspirations, or whether collective work products, activities and skills are needed.

We have created a detailed practical ideas guide that further builds on these points and provides some more practical strategies – just click on the highlighted words to access.

So, if you are about to enter into a situation where you want to work collaboratively with someone (an individual, team or organisation), you can use this list to plan to make sure you have most, if not all, these elements in place.  On the flip side, if you have a relationship which you have been in for sometime which you believe would be better if it were more collaborative in nature, then this list might help you diagnose where the problems lie though highlighting the missing pre-conditions.  The opportunity may exist to take some actions that address the missing element/s and help move the relationship to being more collaborative in nature.

Want to develop a positive mindset and confidence within your team or organisation that encourages effective and proactive stakeholder engagement and collaboration?

Then get in touch with us to find out more about our ‘Stakeholder engagement through collaboration’ workshop. Contact paul@unitedstagingsite.com or melanie@unitedstagingsite.com to find out more, or click here to see a more detailed course description or here to see what other courses we run!