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Drivers of Collaboration

Mark Holmgren | Jul 18, 2013 39 views No Comments

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This is reprinted from a recent newsletter. If you want to see back issues or sign up go here.

In a previous posting I wrote featured an essay called, “On Collaboration” and promised at the end of it a follow up with the Drivers of Collaboration. Promise kept, though a little later than I had envision!

The online Free Dictionary defines “driver” in the context I use it as “something that creates and fuels activity, or gives force or impetus.” I suggest this definition also embraces the notion of a “principle” which the same dictionary defines as “a rule or standard, especially of good behavior.”

Before sharing the drivers of collaboration, let’s ask the basic question: why collaborate? What’s the motivation?

Many will talk about the economics of collaboration as just a natural way to reduce costs and save money. While cost effectiveness can be a result, it’s typically a facile notion to think this is the primary motivation. Often collaboration takes up more resources than it would if an organization acted alone. Collaboration’s promise is in its potential to increase impact, quality, and the time it might take to make change through a series of independent efforts.

Also, there is so much we need to do that we can’t do it alone. Collaboration allows us to focus on our core competencies and leverage them with the core competencies of others. It can help us extend our reach and impact into the community with others at our side who have talents and capacities we don’t. This is why we have sports teams, orchestras, research teams, and so on. Going it alone more times than not just doesn’t cut it.

Driver #1: The purpose and desired results of collaboration must be clear and identified by a group larger than the formal collaboration itself.

For example, work force issues that might spawn collaboration are bigger and more complex than the issues a particular collaboration can address. Collaborators must recognize they cannot address all of the issues but must craft cohesion around which ones they have the skills, resources, and time to tackle. Failure to identify this cohesion will work against success. Allowing the challenge to be too big for the capacity of the group is a major reason why collaborations either take too long or fail.

Driver #2: Although implied above, effective collaborations require the resources to be effective.

If such resources are not forthcoming, then alternative methods should be pursued that are affordable, such as cooperation or coordination. Funders that insist on collaboration but do not provide sufficient resources to develop and deliver it is akin to not putting your money where your mouth is.

Driver #3: Equity of reciprocation must drive the players in collaboration.

While the benefits of collaborating will not be the same for everyone – just as contributions will vary – all must benefit and commit to actions that ensure equitable reciprocation takes place.

Driver #4: Collaborative success requires the acceptance of, and engagement about, individual agendas.

Instead of ignoring individual agendas (which if we are honest never really happens), we should invite them, work with them, and use them to foster the common aspirations we seek. In effect individual agendas are often, I suggest, a precursor to common agendas. To pretend participants should leave them at the door is to discount the very reasons why people look to one another for help and synergy.

Driver #5: Inclusion of the right participants must go beyond age, gender, culture, and alignment around the goals of the collaboration.

Inclusion of those who are able to both lead and yield to the leadership of others is critical. Collaborators must work within a matrix of roles and authorities that are delegated by the group to those who have the capacities required to deliver on a particular task or activity. Such assignments require ego-management and faith in others.

Driver #6: The commitment to the collaboration of organizations must go beyond the individuals who participate.

The commitment of each institution, group, or community that sends its representatives to the collaborative table must be explicit and palpable, and continue on regardless of a change in individual representation. Otherwise, the long-term commitment to the common goals will dissipate as individuals come and go.

Driver #7: Participants in collaboration must deliver on the required time commitment but also have sufficient authority to participate in decision-making.

Participants who continually have to go back to their organizations before they can render a decision or a position will prohibit a timely advancement of the collaboration’s work. This a leadership responsibility, which requires that first, leaders recognize that participation in too many collaborations thins their group’s capacity to fully participate and have impact and, second, creates a time-drag that is unfair for others.

Driver #8: Many, if not most, collaborations require tools, helping mechanisms, and external expertise to be effective.

This can include an outside facilitator, research, technology (like a wiki site), training, and so forth. While having the financial resources is a given, participants need to be open to outside help and influences, where applicable. Large scale collaborations addressing complex challenges across a wide variety of stakeholders will benefit from effective allocation of responsibilities of what John Kania calls a “backbone organization.”

Driver #9: While collaboration is not an end in and of itself, it is true that collaborative efforts have both internal and external outcomes to achieve.

Messy processes or those built from a foundation of protectionism or distrust are contraindications of a healthy engagement of one another in the pursuit of common results. While an effective process is no guarantee of success, the lack of one will lead at best to lackluster results. Spending time on investigating and agreeing with how people will behave together and how the group will address conflict is mandatory.

Driver #10: Effective collaborations require diverse if not disparate perspectives.

The culture of the group should allow for constructive disruption, generative conversations, evaluation time, and broad engagement of participants. Such elements help to foster learning and decision-making that people can support even if they would have decided something differently on their own. John Ott’s suggestion that collective wisdom is best served in an environment that “welcomes all that arises” represents a key criteria for success.

Driver #11: Each member of a collaboration must have an authentic belief in both collaboration and the reason why it is taking place.

Being present solely because of funder demands or because of the fear of being left out are among the wrong reasons to collaborate. Funders need to stop thinking that collaboration should take place everywhere and all of the time; it’s resource intensive to collaborate. Funders would not have the resources to support the panorama of collaboration they espouse. Suggesting that non-profit organizations have the resource or don’t really need them will render authentic commitment to collaborative efforts difficult, if not impossible, to sustain.


In offering these drivers for your consideration, I am fully aware that lists like these are always incomplete and imperfect. They are presented as a frame or foundation upon which to build a collaboration and no doubt will be adjusted, improved upon, and interpreted in ways that speak to those coming together to collaborate.

My suggestion is that before the collaboration’s membership is set, those sitting around the table begin with a prospective mind about what is required to set the stage for success. Realistically, this will involve more than conversation; negotiation is part of the process as well. However, unlike many negotiations, the negotiating that takes place to frame collaboration should be focused on win-win results and the equitable sharing in the responsibility to inject needed resources into collaborative actions.

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