six characteristics of collaborative working

Give your collaboration some backbone!

All collaborations need a strong, flexible backbone, holding it all together, channelling communication and letting the interesting bits get on with what they’re really good at.  I first came across the term ‘backbone organisation’ in the work of US organisation FSG, writing about what they call collective impact, but the need for a central team of some sort has been obvious throughout my work on collaboration.   

What is the 'backbone' and what does it do?

Sometimes called secretariat, host or convenor, the role of the central team encompasses three kinds of activity:

  • Helping the collaborators identify and build on common ground, and resolve differences of view (facilitation);
  • Being a secretariat – a point of contact, repository of information and supporting the terms of reference or other governance of the collaboration;
  • Project management or coordination roles in both governance-related activities, and the ‘doing’ of the work of the collaboration- although I have a big caution around this, which is explored below.

Reassuring the collaborators about how collaboration works

The central team also needs to have a keen understanding of how collaboration works, so that they can help the collaborators negotiate the inevitable challenges that arise (see series of posts on six characteristic challenges of collaboration).  They also need to be able to spot when the collaborators are relying on them too much to do the work of the collaboration – which should really be done by the collaborating organisations.  If the collaborating organisations can’t put their own time and resources into the work, then this raises questions about their commitment to the outcomes that the collaboration is seeking to achieve.  Perhaps they haven’t found joint outcomes which are truly compelling, and shouldn’t be collaborating.  The central team can help them spot this warning sign, and reflect on it.

So the central team needs skills which enable them to do a range of things, from top-notch administration to in-the-room facilitation skills and a good dose of assertiveness.

Does the backbone need to know, and care, about the issues?

Do they need technical knowledge about the subject that the collaborators are working on?  Do they need a commitment to the agenda or cause?

There are a couple of ways in which expertise and passion can be a downside.  This may seem a bit heretical, so I’ll explain my thinking.

When a collaboration begins, then the central tasks probably need to be shared among the potential collaborators, and shoe-horned into people’s already busy day jobs.  But very soon there will be more work of the facilitation and secretariat kind than can be easily accommodated in that way.  So dedicated resource is needed.  What might happen next?  Here are some scenarios.

Organisation A is passionate about the potential of the collaboration to meet its own goals, and steps forward to offer that resource.  There’s space in its office, and a staff person is put on the case.  Very soon, all the collaborators begin to see it as Organisation A’s ‘project’.  The staff person’s line manager sees it that way too.  Organisation A becomes too influential in the decision-making, and also sees itself as carrying the other collaborators.  The commitment which led them to step forward is fabulous. But it unbalances the collaboration, which collapses back into being a set of less engaged supporters of Organisation A’s work.

In another collaboration, Organisation B is contracted to provide the central role.  They are answerable to a small mixed board of some kind, and so the decision-making continues to be balanced and shared between collaborators.  But Organisation B was chosen for its technical knowledge, rather than its skills in collaboration.  Perhaps it gave a very keen price for its services, because of its commitment, which added to the attractiveness of its offer.  Organisation B has lots of opinions on what the collaboration should be doing and either wants to influence the content, or becomes too much of a delivery organisation rather than a facilitative organisation.  The collaborators begin to view it as the sole way that the collaboration is ‘doing’ its work, and their own active commitment to using internal resources and expertise in a coordinated way to meet the collaboration’s outcomes begins to fade.  

Organisation C is a purpose-led non-profit with ambitious goals.  It decides to convene a collaboration around one of those goals.  The collaborators who come together agree with the goals, but individually are not so committed or ambitious.  Organisation C finds itself acting either as a facilitator of conversations between the collaborators (but frustrated at its inability to input its own ambitious ideas) or as a challenger and motivator to higher ambition (and therefore agreeing with some collaborators and not others, compromising its ability to facilitate).

Can one of the collaborators be the backbone?

My strong advice would be to avoid this if at all possible.  It is very hard to avoid the pressure from the rest of the organisation to ‘make’ the collaboration do X or Y.  And it’s also very hard to counteract the slide towards it being seen as something other than collaboration. 

Should the backbone have commitment and expertise in the content?

This can work, but there are risks which the collaborators and central team need to be alive to: having all the ‘actions’ dumped into the centre, and getting the balance of challenge vs neutral facilitation right.  Collaborations need both an ‘organic leader’ and an ‘honest broker’.  There’s more on how this might be done in this blog post.

Real-world collaborations

When I was writing Working Collaboratively, I interviewed a few people about this.  Craig Bennett, currently Executive Director of FOE EWNI, told me about his time convening the Corporate Leaders Group.

“If you have more than a small number of parties, then don’t underestimate the value of proper neutral facilitation and a secretariat.”

Whether that third party role should be truly neutral was less clear.  Signe Bruun Jensen of Maersk Line valued the facilitation combined with the challenge and conscience role that Forum for the Future brought to the Sustainable Shipping Initiative:

“You need that challenger role.  If you can find it in a facilitator then great – he or she can help create a sense of urgency and purpose that pushes the process along. I think the real challenge is for the facilitator – whether he or she can balance that potential conflict of interest. That’s why we ultimately decided to split the role in the later stages of the process.”

While you can buy in a neutral facilitator (if you have the resource to do so), you cannot invent a trusted, powerful ‘organic’ leader - who has credibility among the collaborators, understands the subject and has ambition for transformative solutions - if they are not already in the system.

You may be such a person, or you may need to get such a person on board. 

Jonathon Porritt, Founder Director of Forum for the Future, has been involved in catalysing many collaborative initiatives, including the Sustainable Shipping Initiative.  He said:

“You have to be able to get the right people into the room at some stage. If you don’t have that ability yourself you have to find someone who has.”

So you need that ambitious, challenging, exciting expertise. Heart, guts, brain. And you need, separately, your backbone.

 

 

 

It's success, Jim, but not as we know it: sixth characteristic

"Success may be different..." is perhaps the most exciting of the challenges for me, because I have seen such different reactions to it.

Sixth of six

This post is the final one in a series of six, covering the six characteristic challenges of collaborative working.

Success may look different to what you expected

The sixth characteristic challenge is that you just don't know what you're going to end up with.  And it would be a mistake to try to predict it too precisely, which makes project planners and budget holders in some kinds of organisations very twitchy indeed.

The thing is, that even when you can see the potential for collaborative advantage, this may be quite uncertain, speculative, indirect or long-term.  Because it depends on finding willing and able collaborators who want the same (or complementary) outcomes.  And as we have seen in the other characteristic challenges decisions are shared. Which means that you can't predict, let alone control, what the successful collaboration will look like.

This applies to the what, the how and the who.

An open mind, but not an empty mind

Until you've reached agreement with at least one other organisation or group about what you want to achieve, you don't know what you'll agree on.  Until you've decided together how to work together, you don't know how you'll work together.  And until you've agreed who to work with - and they've agree to work with you and each other - you won't know who you'll end up working with.  Of course, have some intelligent and well-informed guesses or working assumptions - don't have an empty mind.  But avoid being trapped by your research and early planning - maintain an open mind.

Messy play

Collaboration is an intrinsically ‘messy’ and uncertain process as the outcomes and solutions tend to shift in the light of unfolding events and opportunities.  Even once you have agreed what you want to achieve, you will still need to share decision-making about what the action is you'll take together to achieve the outcomes you want.

Sounds a bit risky....

Some organisations just hate this.  Their internal culture is one of clear prioritisation of resources, delivering against targets, husbanding their budgets carefully and not having a penny to spare for things which can't be guaranteed to deliver.  They won't release funds until the deliverables have been planned in.  They see the staff time invested in the speculative early stages of collaboration as unjustifiable, when there are urgent priorities which are part of the day-job waiting to be completed.  While this is understandable - especially if public money is being spent under political scrutiny - it is very problematic when much bigger gains might be made through collaborating.

Organisations with this kind of culture need to judge the level of resources to put into working collaboratively on a particular outcome, and weigh against competing demands on staff time and budgets.

Can't we just make them collaborate?

However eager for collaboration we may be, there will be situations where there just aren’t suitable organisations to collaborate with.  For cultures where wielding power (hierarchical, financial or regulatory) is deeply embedded, this inability to just make others do what you want can be exasperating!  When your senior people see collaboration as the answer, they may get very grumpy if at the quarterly reporting meeting you say "well, we tried, but at the moment no-one else wants to achieve what we want to achieve".

Managers need to accept – and to convey to their staff - that you cannot make people collaborate.  The team may need to learn to see ‘no thanks’ as a positive outcome: framed as “we agreed with them not to go any further on this”, rather than “that was a failure”.

And keep open to the possibility that you may need to use other ways to achieve the outcomes you want – for example through regulation (if you are a policy-maker or regulator) or incentives – if collaboration does not bear fruit.

A challenge? No, it's the whole point!

And then there are some organisations and sectors for whom the uncertainty inherent in collaboration is exactly the point.  Working with researchers and academics at Sheffield University's exciting Crucible collaboration workshop recently, there were a few baffled looks when I introduced this characteristic challenge.  People didn't see it negatively at all.  Not knowing in advance what you're going to find out and how you're going to go about it is precisely the reason why collaboration is interesting and worthwhile for these people.

What can you do?

If you are choosing a team to work collaboratively, look for people with flexibility and who are happy to live with rapid change and sudden uncertainty.

Progress is unpredictable – so don’t expect staff to predict it. Managers need to give people authority, amidst this uncertainty, to make medium-term plans.  This includes managing the tension which arises between setting budgets or spending plans with not knowing when the costs of work will become clear.

Six characteristics

So there we have it: the six characteristic challenges of collaborative working. I'd love to hear about any more, and about your own experience of making collaboration work despite - or even because of - these characteristics.

It's a marathon not a sprint: fifth characteristic of collaboration

It's rarely a way of getting things done faster that you would alone! If you are looking to collaboration to solve your speed problem, then you need to seek other solutions.

Fifth of six

This post is the fifth in a series of six, covering the six characteristic challenges of collaborative working.

Speculate to accumulate

Collaboration needs up-front investment in understanding the history, context and relationships between potential collaborators.  And once that first phase is over and there's an eager collaborator willing to play, it takes time to explore possible win-wins and work through the details of how you'll work together.  Let alone the time to agree on the action you will take together which moves you all towards the agreed outcomes.

The diagram of the loops of collaboration in this post is an attempt to put this into images.

One of my favourite aphorisms, supplied by the wonderful Elspeth Donovan, is that you have to go slow to go fast. Keep this in mind to reassure yourself and your colleagues when the pace of progress is making you twitchy.

What takes the time?

In collaboration, you can't skimp on the time it takes to

-      build relationships

-      understand the landscape of collaboration

-      understand the culture of potential collaborators

-      explore possible win-wins

-      establish ways of working (formal and informal).

And there are two kinds of time taken up: the time budget (how many hours you have available to work on it) and the calendar time (how much time will elapse before the various milestone decisions or actions occur).

Speaking of the time budget, it takes real people's real time to convene, manage or even just play an active role in a collaboration. This time doesn't need to all come from the initiating organisation: in fact, it's a mistake if it does, because it leads to unhelpful assumptions about whose responsibility it is to keep the show on the road.

Leaders - you can help

If you lead a team who need to initiate and take an active part in collaboration, here are some tips, developed with facilitator extraordinaire Andrew Acland as part of our work with the Environment Agency :

  • Give staff time to explore the ‘landscape’ and understand the history
  • Be patient – don’t expect delivery, or even significant decisions, too soon.
  • Ensure internal reporting processes, deadlines, targets and KPIs are compatible with this reality.  You may need to explain this to senior managers, defending the approach and the time it is taking.  There is a great guide to evaluating collaboration (or 'collective impact' in the terminology of the Collective Impact Forum), which stresses the different things you may need to look for during the early stages (mostly process and proxies) than the delivery phase (deliverables, outputs, outcomes, impacts).
  • Communicate existing work and establish new ‘quick wins’ to maintain interest, support and momentum.
  • Be prepared to stay involved and actively engaged after decisions have been made or policies signed off.  Don’t take up this way of working unless you see it as a long-term commitment.
  • Managers need to have detailed understanding of the organisational, legal and policy context of any collaborative work to be able to make sense of the reality of what their staff will need to do.
  • This might mean some ‘front loading’ of manager time in early stages, so they are sufficiently briefed to both lead and support staff.  This resource needs to come from somewhere.
  • This way of working needs to be planned in, budgeted for and resourced, even if another organisation is ‘convening’ the partnership or collaborative planning process; most collaboration requires work between meetings.

 

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.

Why?

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.

Second characteristic: decisions are shared

When one organisation is collaborating with another, both are doing so because they have chosen to. Which means, ultimately, that either collaborating party can walk away if the collaboration is no longer meeting their needs.

The kinds of things shared decisions need to be made about

Walking away might happen because the outcomes which are being worked towards (the what) are just not compelling enough.  Or it might be because the process of how the collaboration is working (high level governance, day-to-day secretariat work, speed and complexity of decision-making) doesn't suit them.  Or it might be because the other collaborators (the who) make too uneasy a team - perhaps there's a fundamental clash of values or identity.

What this tells you, then, is that decisions about these three threads (the what, the who and the how) are shared.  No one party can impose their preference on the other(s).

So sometimes there's a need to compromise, if the prize is worth it

Some outcomes that one organisation wants to achieve may depend on it helping others to deliver their own outcomes first or at the same time (the what).  This may mean that some collaborative work doesn’t easily fit into the first organisation’s priorities, processes and systems.  This is the main reason why collaboration depends on great internal working too - see future post.

You can't force collaboration

Organisations which the initiators or collaborators would really like to involve, can decline to get involved (the who).  You may need to go into persuasion and listening mode, asking "what would it take, for your organisation to collaborate?" or "what do you want to achieve, that this emerging work could help take forward?" or "how would it need to be organised and run, for your organisation to be happy with getting involved?"

Helping your team share decisions

The big challenge in sharing decisions is knowing how much decision-making authority you have within your own organisation.  Let me explain why.  There will almost certainly be some tension between what your organisation wants and what your collaborators want.  Even if it's just over process matters like how far in advance to send around pre-meeting reading, or whether to have formal Terms of Reference for a steering group.  So the people 'in the room' doing the negotiating need to be clear about their organisation's ‘bottom lines’ and preferences, and clear about their own mandate to commit it to things (including things which don’t directly deliver their own organisation's objectives).

You or your team need to be confident that the people the report to are happy with the ways things are progressing.

And if you or your team are involved in  working out the process (e.g. planning wider stakeholder engagement, planning and running meetings, project planning), they need to do this in conjunction with collaborators’ organisations.

If your organisation has rigid annual planning and budget-setting processes, there may be a tension because it will not be in control of the pace that the collaboration moves at, so there will be quite a lot of uncertainty to take into account when doing that internal planning and budgeting.

Keep an eye out for the impact of your own internal systems such as authorisation or reporting procedures - are they getting in the way of collaborative work?  Who do you need to talk to, to sort this out?

Next time: it depends on great relationships.

Characteristics of collaborative working, episode one of six

There are some typical challenges in inter-organisational collaboration which it's as well to be ready for.  I'll summarise them here, and then blog in more detail about each one over the coming weeks.

Six characteristics

These six characteristics emerged from research I carried out with experienced collaborators from the Environment Agency, when putting together some training for their managers on how to develop and support a team culture which supports collaboration.  This training was developed and delivered with InterAct Networks (including Lynn Wetenhall) and a small internal client team, and some of Working Collaboratively also draws on this work.

Here's a little about our first characteristic - it isn't easy.

It isn't easy

This may sound a little trite, but there is an important insight here: you choose to collaborate (rather than work alone) when the problem you want to solve or the outcome you want to achieve is something that you can't tackle alone.  Why can't you tackle it alone?  Most likely because it is complex, systemic, entrenched, wicked, long-standing.  And all of those things make it hard.

So you are using an inherently difficult approach (collaboration - see the other five characteristics for what makes it inherently hard) to tackle a hard situation.

Which means: if you are finding it hard, it doesn't necessarily mean that you are doing it wrong!

I say this so you can find comfort in knowing that the hardness is a feature of the landscape, to be expected.  Don't beat yourself (or your colleagues, or your collaborators) up.

Instead, discuss the hardness.  "Hey team, this is proving hard!  What do we need to keep doing, and what do we need to do differently, in the face of the difficulties?".  Knowing that it's OK to have this conversation - because the hardness is inherent rather than anyone's fault - will free you up to find new ways to address things or the strength to continue with the things you are already doing.