Collaboration: Do you need to slow it down and do it right?

Definition of the term collaboration

This is an action research post and very much me thinking in public. As I write this it occurs to me that I am perhaps less of an innovator and more of an experimenter – at the moment I am experimenting with ways to get things done.

I’ve been thinking about collaboration a lot – thinking about how to really do it and not just use it as a word to signal that everything will be ok if you just do what I want to do. Collaboration – easy to say and really difficult to do.

I’m not the only one – when resources are scare we are all trying to think about how to make them go further with more collaboration and less doubling up of activity and wasted effort.

I’ve been thinking about the first step of trying to establish a common purpose. How do you keep the question of “what are we collaborating to achieve” open enough to include everyone we are trying to include? Or at least until you have a critical mass of people wanting to achieve the same thing?

And how do you do that in a way which makes your own purpose clear and transparent but also shows you are open to blending it with other ideas?

Sometimes you need to slow it down to do it right – but that is a very difficult thing to do in a world which wants us to move fast and where listening and flexibility can be taken as indecision and weakness rather than collaborative behaviours.

It’s takes a generosity of leadership to be able to hold open the possibility of collaboration and make it about more than simply getting people to follow them. A charismatic leader can usually persuade people to do things – setting up the conditions for collaboration is a deeper, more difficult but ultimately more sustainable thing.

Here is the rub – when we are talking about collaboration around the production of public services I think we have to talk about democracy. If we are trying to solve problems of scarce resource, or trying to change an organisation at pace in the public sector with all the shaping design decisions implicit in that process, then don’t we need to lean into democratic process to make sure we do this with people and not just to people?

And doesn’t this just slow it all down again? But do you need to slow it down and do it right?

But the demand for action is not always a bad thing – as well as a sense of common purpose collaboration needs trust and that is built through small actions not big statements. Sometimes symbolic changes are needed to move collaboration forward, sometimes its small but significant things. Every organisation or system has cultural symbols which indicate a ‘stuckness’ in the system – change these and you create momentum. Similarly there are symbols or the deeper narrative and sense of an organisation which need to be more gently held and helped forward to be part of the future.

So here is the question – can we involve people in a democratically robust way in order to select those symbols of change which will unlock the potential for collaboration in a system? In other places the answer has been yes – look at the use of participatory budgeting in South America or asset based community development in Seattle. Within organisations ideas platforms and open innovation approaches have been used to unlock ideas and potential for change.  Sometimes opening up the agenda setting process in this way is enough of a symbol in its right because agenda setting is a hugely powerful act – democratically and otherwise. Is the first step to better collaboration working out how to co-create the agenda?

In the same way as any conversation about change ends up as a conversation about culture any conversation about collaboration becomes a discussion about power – and perhaps about the exchange of value.   The final step then in creating the conditions for collaboration are about setting up the conditions for the exchange of value – and the first step towards that is establishing a principle of reciprocity.  Again we return to a democratic framing here – because reciprocity works best when people believe the system is fair and that is deep held tenet of our democratic system.

If our four elements of collaboration are:

  • common purpose
  • trust
  • open agenda setting
  • reciprocity

Then I find myself asking myself these questions:

  1. How can I communicate my own purpose in a clear and transparent way but also show I am open to blending it with other ideas?
  2. How do I move with enough pace to gain momentum but slowly enough to give time for to build trust and real collaboration?
  3. How can I open up the process of creating an agenda for a programme of work at the same time as getting stuff done?
  4. What can I personally offer in any given situation which unlocks reciprocity in other people?


This post is about questions not answers – I’d be interested to know if this resonates with anyone else.  In the meantime I will continue to experiment.  Comments as ever very welcome.


HT and thanks  to @camillachild who first pointed out the two definitions of the word to me

  1. Pingback: Collaboration: Do you need to slow it down and do it right? – Catherine Howe | Public Sector Blogs |

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  3. Ann Gallagher

    May 3, 2016 at 5:15 pm

    Maybe in living where we live – in just getting to know what is already right there under our noses ? Really getting to know others – many have skills and talents just under the radar that they don’t see as special – lots of great stuff already here – could we build on it ? Community strengthening for all not just the young , trendy ones ?

  4. Carl Haggerty

    May 12, 2016 at 10:53 am

    As always most of the things you write resonate with me. 🙂

    I do however think that this links very much with the collective impact approach.

    I’d recently been signposted to it as a way to tackle and address complex social problems across multiple organisations and stakeholders It has really resonated with me in the context of system wide change and system leadership. Resonates with many of your posts i think

    Collective Impact:
    Successful collective impact initiatives typically have five conditions that together produce true alignment and lead to powerful results:

    Common Agenda:
    All participating organizations (government agencies, non-profits, community members, etc.) have a shared vision for social change that includes a common understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving the problem through agreed upon actions.

    Shared Measurement System:
    Agreement on the ways success will be measured and reported with a short list of key indicators across all participating organisations.

    Mutually Reinforcing Activities:
    Engagement of a diverse set of stakeholders, typically across sectors, coordinating a set of differentiated activities through a mutually reinforcing plan of action.

    Continuous Communication:
    Frequent communications over a long period of time among key players within and across organizations, to build trust and inform ongoing learning and adaptation of strategy.

    Backbone Organisation:
    Ongoing support provided by an independent staff dedicated to the initiative. The backbone staff tends to play six roles to move the initiative forward:
    o Guide Vision and Strategy;
    o Support Aligned Activity;
    o Establish Shared Measurement Practices;
    o Build Public Will;
    o Advance Policy;
    o Mobilise Funding.

    Hope this helps and contributes to your thinking also. Carl

  5. CJ

    October 5, 2016 at 11:17 am

    Human beings are pack animals. We get a buzz from being in synch with other people. Most business collaboration misses this. In my experience, team working today is a collection of individuals agreeing to work separately to deliver a common goal, but there’s no sense of pleasure from having each other’s company.
    Trust is key. A big part of this is leaving out something that you know you could contribute, but trusting that your collaborator could do it better, and sharing in their success, jointly.


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