Despite the never-ending hype around the value of cross-sector collaboration, the truth is, as Lori Bartczak notes in "Building Collaboration," a new report issued by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, "Collaboration may not always be the best strategy."
When doesn't collaboration make sense?
1. When stakeholders complain about an issue, but aren't prepared to change. Collaboration requires everyone involved to change how they operate. If stakeholders don't agree to change how they engage with others, how they measure success and how they allocate resources then any attempt to foster collaboration will fail to rise above the all-too-common world of "coblaboration."
2. When the right kind of leadership is lacking. Galvanizing leadership -- the kind of leadership that inspires us to break out of our silos and assume shared responsibility for a common goal -- is necessary for a collaboration to survive the unavoidable rough spots that are inherent in the collaborative process. If the recognized leaders use "command and control" techniques and/or you cannot identify people who are prepared to exercise galvanizing leadership then your collaboration probably won't get past the first few traps. It is possible to engage individuals and help them see the need for exercising galvanizing leadership. That work should be done long before you try to launch your collaboration.
3. When the organizations you will be collaborating with don't even aspire to be high performers. We need to acknowledge that too many organizations within the complex systems we are striving to improve aren't operating at a high level. If they were it is less likely that you'd be pushing for systems change. Mario Morino and other Leap of Reason advocates have identified seven pillars of high performing organizations. Mario is fond of reminding me that collaboration can be a fool's errand because it all but requires harmonic convergence. I guess I'm more optimistic than that, but experience has taught me and the Fund for Our Economic Future that if you ask a handful of average organizations to collaborate you can guarantee a failed collaboration. Collaboration is hard work. Before pursuing a collaboration with others, make sure your organization and others are up to doing great work, or at least aspire to it.
There are more reasons not to collaborate than to do so. But if you want to achieve enduring, positive change within your community you will have to collaborate. Just don't assume your community is ready for it. You can help get them ready helping key stakeholders see the compelling cause that must be addressed (not just complained about); supporting those who have the ability to exercise galvanizing leadership (and by discouraging the command and control leadership style); and by promoting the performance imperative. Yes, the work involved in getting your community in a position where collaboration is possible can be just as demanding as the collaboration process itself.