Principles of Effective Collaboration
Principle 1: There is a commitment to Mutual Purpose and Mutual Benefit
So why do we choose to collaborate in the first place? The answer is both simple and complex. If you pose this question to groups, typical responses will include:
It is easier to get a job done with more people helping. You can share the workload.
- With more people you have access to more experience and/or expertise.
- There is the potential for greater innovation with a broader range of perspectives.
- We believe that there is value in different perspectives.
- We don’t have a choice. Our supervisor, the agency or organization, or the requirements for the grant or legislation, mandates that we work together.
A more pragmatic reason we choose to work together is that we believe that there will be value for both us and for those we serve. We believe that there is the potential for achieving Mutual Benefit while pursuing our Mutual Purpose:
By Mutual Purpose we acknowledge that we have shared interests in the issue(s) at stake.
By Mutual Benefit we believe that we will all achieve a better outcome by working together than by working independently.
Principle 2: A space is created that holds, me, you, and we.
The decision of whether or not to collaborate is often understood as an either / or decision. We believe that we will either work independently OR interdependently. It just seems fairly obvious that we cannot do both. However in our context of multi-agency, systemic collaboration the answer can be more complex than this. Our goal in establishing a collaborative relationship is to create a space where multiple independent entities can work interdependently to achieve creative, and innovative outcomes. What do we mean by this?
Let’s start with Me. When I, my agency, my organization enter this relationship we retain who we are. We maintain our purpose, vision, and mission and engage in many of the same activities we have in the past in pursuit of our objectives.
Let’s move to You. When you, your agency, your organization enter this relationship you retain who you are. You maintain your purpose, vision, and mission and engage in many of the same activities you have in the past in pursuit of your objectives.
Now let’s look at We. As individual organizations we have come together in pursuit of a mutual purpose to achieve mutual benefit. We will not be successful if we agree to simply coexist as we pursue this objective. Simply communicating and coordinating, while valuable, keep us within our current comfort zones and will not necessarily produce anything really creative or innovative. When we choose to collaborate we are creating, in essence, a new structure that is fundamentally different from either of our individual structures. It is this fresh context that has the potential for creating something different than either of us could create on our own.
Me and You in the context of We: In doing this work, we have come to realize that there is a fourth dimension. We will learn new things as we work together. These new things and the work we do together will influence and change our individual work. Our individual systems will very likely change as a result of this shared work.
Principle 3: Shared Learning is a Shared Value
We believe that a primary task of any collaborative effort is to engage in shared learning. All participants to collaboration bring knowledge, expertise and experience related to the task. And yet we have already acknowledged that what we individually bring is insufficient. The work in collaboration is to take what we know individually and share it so all participants achieve a deeper level of shared knowing. This approach to learning is called dialogue. One set of authors (Patterson, Genny, McMillan, and Switzler) refers to dialogue as a conversation for creating a deeper shared pool of understanding. It is from this “shared pool” that we will begin to form creative and innovative responses to our task.
Now while this sounds fairly straight forward, it is in reality very challenging. Our culture tends to be more oriented to debate. When we encounter a different perspective or opinion we tend to move the conversation quickly into an argument focused on determining who is right. But what if the issue is more complex than simply finding the right answer? Dialogue, on the other hand, invites us to:
- recognize this tendency to judge, defend, argue and/or debate,
- choose to suspend our judgment of what others are saying,
- engage the conversations with curiosity, and
move outside our comfort zones so as to explore and understand new and diverse ideas.
At the end of the conversation we will learn that:
- There things about which we agree and share understanding,
- There are certain things about which we remain unclear and possibly confused,
- There are certain things about which we may never agree, and
- There are a number of areas in which we have developed new learning, fresh perspective, and deeper understanding.
Our commitment to new learning is the context where we do our most innovative and creative thinking about our work. Maintaining this commitment requires us to be intentional.
Principle 4: Collaboration is an intentional process and is worth protecting
Collaboration is hard work. It makes our work more complex and can cause frustration. And yet we believe it is worth the effort. So if this truly is the case then our shared success depends on focused and balanced attention to some key dimensions of collaborative work. We must balance our attention on Task, Relationship, and Maintenance: This is our challenge. We need to pay attention in three areas. Let’s unpack what we mean.
First we consider our Task – We have come together to intentionally pursue an outcome. We must talk about this work and allocate our personal and organizational resources to achieve this outcome.
Our Relationships with each other are the second area on which to focus our attention– Ronald Short, in his book, Learning in Relationships, articulates the importance of this dimension. He says:
“Relationships are the very heart and soul of an organization’s ability to get any job done. Whether good or bad, effective of ineffective, relationships and their interactions are the organizations DNA – they create and define organizations. Without them there is no organization.”
Suffice it to say that the quality of the relationships we build and maintain with each other will be highly correlated to the quality of the work we produce.
Finally, what do we mean by Maintenance? This may seem like an interesting word to use in this context and yet it identifies a key area on which to focus. Our ability to collaborate effectively requires that we both create and maintain structures that build our team and support our work. We will sometimes use the notion of a road trip as a metaphor for what we mean. A successful road trip requires that you have a car and that it is in good working order before you leave. While on the road you continue to assess its roadworthiness so as to get the most out of your adventure. This resource will focus primarily on strategies for supporting Maintenance.
Principle 5: Everyone owns and commits to the outcome
Finally we come to the results of our efforts. To the extent that we have maintained our commitment to the task and to the principles described above, all participants own the outcome produced. What does this mean?
First, credit is shared: No one person or organization owns the results. In our collaboration we have created something that none of us could have done on our own.
Second, Consensus or at-least Substantial Consensus has been achieved. For many who work in a collaborative context there is often a spoken or unspoken expectation that all decisions will be reached by consensus and, that for the most part, everyone agrees. This is an admirable objective and yet may be unrealistic in some contexts. Suffice it to say that the issue of decision–making can be complex.
As the community moves forward with implementation there will be an attempt to reach consensus on key issues. So what do we mean by consensus? We typically respond with a definition such as, an acceptable resolution, one that can be supported, even if not the preferred option of individuals. This works well in a community with strong commitments to both relationships and the community.
Yet what happens in a collaborative initiative where certain members will only accept their proposed outcome or an outcome that they find completely acceptable? Using the previous definition, the initiative can be held hostage to a small group of stakeholders and progress can be thwarted. While this may sound cynical, it may in fact be the objective of this group that sees the work of the larger group as a threat. In this case we apply a variation to traditional consensus called sufficient consensus.
When a group, ready to move forward, experiences this type of push back they will ask those disagreeing with proposed agreement to describe what would be necessary to make the action acceptable. If they respond, the rest of the group will then make a concerted effort to address these interests. If they are not able to do so they will move forward fully realizing that they may not have the support of everyone and in some cases may find a small contingent working against this action.
The point is this. To not implement action is not an option. The group is committed to moving forward with the best action currently available to them because it is in support of their Mutual Purpose and achieves Mutual Benefit.
Now that we have identified our core commitments, let’s take a look at each of the Maintenance conversations. We will describe the scope of each, clarify the rationale, and share some basic strategies for engaging each.