Thursday, May 23, 2013

Collaboration Isn't Informal

One of the biggest mistakes we make in the civic space is assuming that collaboration is an informal process. By definition, collaboration is a shared process without clear lines of authority. The lack of hierarchy however doesn't mean a lack of rules. Indeed, if a collaboration is to achieve collective impact their needs to be predetermined rules of interaction that guide the behavior of each of the collaborators.

As Mark Kramer and John Kania highlight in their Embracing Emergence article, the solutions that emerge from collaborations are a reflection of the quality of the interactions among the independent actors. To assure quality interactions, rules need to be in place and understood by the participants. The rules will need to evolve as the collaboration does the same, but they should be in writing.

The most common complaint about collaborations is that they don't produce results as too much time is spent talking (or fighting) and not doing. One reason many collaborations never get beyond the "navel gazing" phase is the participants have never taken the time to clearly articulate what they will do together, and just as importantly how they will work with each other.

In his book Collaborate! Dan Sanker identifies the essentials of collaboration, and one of the most important is to put agreements in writing. Writing down what is expected of each collaborator, as well as the collaboration, as a whole can help keep everyone focused on the common goal. The written agreement can also be used to clarify roles and responsibilities. The agreement should also make clear what is being measured, by whom and how participants in the collaboration are expected to use that data. As Sanker notes, "Even a simple document can help the group use its time and resources as wisely as possible and avoid problems that could interfere with its ability to achieve its goal."

The process of writing the rules of interaction can also give participants an opportunity to build trust. The mere act of reaching an agreement on the rules is an "early win" that can build momentum toward more substantive actions.


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