Author: Andrew Outhwaite
Here at Pollinators we recognise that no matter how hardworking, well-informed or creative we may be as individuals or organisations, there are limits to what can be achieved alone. Realising big ideas, pursuing breakthrough innovations or transforming communities are best done with others, in collaboration.
Recently, I participated on Aboriginal land management in the Mid West where many remarkable practitioners from across the state came to share their stories. Being asked to present on a topic to such a well-informed audience lead me to think deeply about the key ingredients in successful collaborations.
Because, despite collaboration being a popular meme in many industries and sectors and digital technologies making collaborating easier then ever, it can still be done really badly. There’s a real skill to partnering well, and over the last ten years of working in this area I’ve seen many well-intentioned collaborations fail. And in my experience, those that succeed have seven factors in common. Here I’ve posed them as questions, to help you and your partners consider them yourselves.
Where are we on a collaboration spectrum? (Collaboration Spectrum)
There are many forms of collaboration, for example:
- Markets — Competition within rule-bound environments
- Partnerships — Joint ownership of activities and outcomes
- Alliances — United collective for activities, ethos, outcomes
- Communities —Sharing based on “in common” interests or traits
The Learning Marketplace pilot project is an example of markets as collaboration. Even though the partners have some competition for similar audiences, they could all see the benefit of a single online platform to ensure their training opportunities reached a larger audience.
What do we do very well, uniquely? (Core Business)
I’ve noticed that organisations who aren’t clear on their ‘core business’ or ‘unique value proposition’ tend to perceive potential collaborators as threats and competitors. Clarity about your unique contribution seems to help individuals and organisations relax, be open, and objectively assess collaborative ventures without projecting their insecurities onto others.
The MoU between ACDC (arts), MWCCI (business) and Pollinators Inc (social) is an example. Engaging with each other helped clarify our respective strengths, differentiate our offerings, and collaborate for the benefit the whole community. Without clarity on our core business we would probably still perceive each other as competition for members, and been unable to collaborate effectively.
In what areas could learning enable our growth? (Learning Edge)
If you want to grow and learn, collaboration can accelerate the process. Collaborations can bring you closer to people who: share your aspirations, have different perspectives, or who have strengths you admire. Discovering and revealing your ‘learning edge’ allows you to share the learning journey together, for mutual benefit.
An example could be the MoU between the Midwest Aboriginal Organisations Alliance and the Western Australia Centre for Rural Health. Both the local Aboriginal leaders and health researchers have different expertise, communication styles, and priorities, but a mutual appreciation of the learn opportunity contributes to an effective partnership.
What is the bigger collective vision? (Shared Purpose)
Successful collaboration is not just about working well with a partner. Collaborations can be enhanced by paying attention to other stakeholders. For example, a joint venture may benefit customers, and if all three levels of government are aligned in their work then whole communities can get better outcomes. The shared commitment to an ‘other’ often acts as the ‘glue’ or ‘magnet’ that holds collaborative relationships together, and helps to tolerate the flaws (and appreciate the contributions) of the other collaborators.
An interesting example is the Bendigo Bank model, which is a partnership between Bendigo and Adelaide Bank (corporate) and a local franchisee (community). Both partners are necessary in every local franchise to serve customers. Neither could do this without the other. They also donate 50% of profits into the local community, which benefits local communities, keeps investment in regional Australia, and also makes Bendigo the most trusted brand in a very competitive national banking market.
How would we know it was working? (Success Criteria)
Collaborating because you just like the other party(ies) may not be enough to drive or sustain an effective relationship. As early as possible all involve should agree a minimum set of criteria against which they can assess their joint activities and relationship. Making these criteria explicit and shared can help prioritise what you will do together, and give a sound basis for reviewing the relatinoship in the future.
An example from Pollinators is our Board and staff ethos of explicitly focusing on win-win-win-win relationships. In early conversations with potential project partners we seek to get clear together on how individuals, organisations, partners and how whole community will benefit from our collaboration. We try to actively facilitate other parties’ outlining how they expect to win from the relationship, knowing that if they aren’t clear then their future unvoiced dissatisfaction could undermine the relationship for us and all other partners and intended beneficiaries.
What technologies will enable us to work together? (Working Platform)
Technology can enable great collaborations, and it can also make collaboration very frustrating. Frustrations and problems often stem from failing to accommodate different communication styles, skill levels or accessibility. While the initial aspirations may be grand, failing to negotiate little details like meeting venues, document sharing, and collaborative marketing strategies can contribute to a negative collaboration experience.
Pollinators choice for its online membership space is an example: while BuddyPress made sense initially, we now use Podio. Along the way we tested Yammer, Facebook Groups, Slack and many others. While our final choice won’t suit everyone, we put a lot of thought into finding a platform that works for most.
When will we review the relationship? (Relationship Cycle)
Collaborations aren’t ‘forever’. Setting regular review dates allows partners to focus on getting stuff done together rather than constant renegotiation of the relationship. Thinking about reviews can also bring to mind all the other distinct phases in a relationship e.g. ‘scoping’, ‘engaging’, ‘resourcing’, ‘managing’ and ‘measuring’.
I’ve seen some real examples of issues this can cause. One example is when partners think they are at different phases of the relationship cycle: one party is still ‘scoping’ the relationship, while the other is already working on the details of implementation. Another example is partners never getting around to agreeing on a review period, and the relationship just drifts without any opportunity to make adjustments.
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