Collaboration requires high-quality internal working : fourth characteristic

Sometimes we're drawn to the idea of collaborating because we are finding our colleagues impossible! If this is your secret motivation, I have bad news: successful collaboration requires high-quality internal working in each of the collaborating organisations.

So you need to find a way of working with those impossible colleagues too.


Selling the leap of faith

Partly, of course, it's about getting permission to take the leap of faith needed to invest in the inherently uncertain adventure of collaboration.  Because decisions are shared, success may look different to what you expected (which is a characteristic challenge I'll tackle later in this series).  So you will need to be able to sell the idea of collaboration, or of this particular collaboration, to the people who can tell you to stop working on it or defend the time you are devoting to it.

If the collaboration is going to help you meet a core organisational goal (like getting a piece of legislation passed or building a flood defence scheme) then this will be easier than if its benefits are more diffuse or instrumental (like improving the organisation's reputation or reducing staff turnover).

On message

Once you're in collaboration mode, consistent messages and attitudes are crucial.  Everyone in your organisation who interacts with people from the collaborating organisation needs to know that you are working together. People need an opportunity to voice and check their assumptions about what this means in practice.

Part of the initial stakeholder and contextual analysis looks inward: who in our organisation already has relationships with our potential collaborators? Who is already familiar with the topic or geography that the collaboration is going to be operating in?

These people may need a sophisticated understanding of the collaboration. If the organisations also need to remain aloof for some aspects of their work, then people need to know that. Regulators don't give collaborators an easier ride, nor should they. Campaign groups will want to retain their ability to be critical in public.  Businesses need to be clear about what they are donating or providing pro bono, and what they will need to charge for.

No matter how sophisiticated it needs to be at that level, there are some simple things that you can do like helping to introduce people to the most appropriate counterparts (for example, matching seniority levels), having a single point of contact (a bit like an account manager) who knows how the organisations are interacting, and keeping key public-facing people informed about what's happening.

Work arounds

Every organisation has its little ways: policies, expectations, guidance, explicit or unspoken assumptions about how things are done. These don't always match the ways that other organisation do things. In fact, there will almost certainly be something your organisation thinks is as natural as breathing, that your collaborators think is deeply weird.

Because decisions are shared, you will need to agree with your collaborators how to work together.  This is one of the three threads in the plait that loops through the early stages.

But you may find that despite having done so, there are others inside your own organisation who say that things 'must' be done in a certain way.  One big public body I work with has a generic Memorandum of Understanding which runs to sixty pages.  The unstaffed community groups they hope to collaborate with will run a mile if faced with that.  The canny staff have learnt to develop work arounds which (just about) satisfy their internal legal specialists and are less alarming for the voluntary organisations.

Another client is used to being a service provider to its own clients.  Their approach to the early stages of collaboration mirrors their process for 'qualifying' business opportunities but takes account of the fact that the deliverables may not be pinned down until much later than usual.

If your organisation is used to bossing others around (as a customer, regulator or campaign group) then a more collegiate approach may be hard to cultivate.  If you are used to being a supplier, then you need to develop a more assertive way of interacting with collaborators who are not customers and not 'always right'.  Noticing that a shift in framing is needed, and helping to bring it about, is a critical internally-facing part of collaborating.

Doing what you've said you'll do

And this brings us back to where we came in: collaboration is about doing things together, not just having conversations and finding out what you agree (and disagree) about. Delivering.

Sooner or later, your organisation will need to commit real people's real time and budgets to taking action which has been dreamt up and agreed by the collaborators.

This shouldn't feel like it is happening on top of the day job: if your collaboration is aiming to achieve outcomes that your organisation finds compelling, it should be part of the day job for people.  But things often feel clunkier than that, at least in the early stages.

So your high-quality internal working needs to include dovetailing in with work planning and strategy-setting, so that there is room people's day jobs to both negotiate what will be delivered, and to deliver it.