What Does It Take to Learn to Collaborate?

February 19, 2014 3 Comments

The following is the first installment of an email exchange among Chris Thompson of the Fund for our Economic Future, Alison Gold of Living Cities, and me that was initiated given our shared interest in and practice around supporting cross-sectoral multi-stakeholder collaboration.  I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel with Alison at the Community Foundations Conference in San Diego last fall, and of meeting Chris through Alison, though initially through the Next City story on network building for economic development in Northeast Ohio.  To date, this has gotten us to core questions around what it takes to cultivate collective will for collaboration. We invite you to join the conversation.­ 

On Jan 5, 2014, at 1:39 PM, Chris Thompson wrote:

Based on my Twitter feed I suspect more people than ever have this as their New Year’s Resolution: “I will collaborate more.”  The oracle himself, Thomas Friedman, sang its praises in this morning’s Times.This article, by Liz Skelton at Social Leadership Australia, got me wondering if more people do resolve to collaborate, are there things they can work on – what Liz describes as “capabilities” – that better prepare them to fulfill such a resolution? In short, can collaboration be learned?

Liz’s capabilities are targeted at experienced, motivated collaborators. I wonder more about what can be done to help those who might resolve to collaborate, but really aren’t experienced or motivated. A few years ago, the Council on Competitiveness described regional collaboration as “an unnatural act among non-consenting adults.” That definition resonated with my experience in regional economic work. Non-consenting adults don’t see the value proposition in collaboration.

Liz gets to the issue of value proposition in the first capability, identifying “what impact you can have together that you can’t have alone.” Asking that question will help the eager student sharpen their collaboration skills, but the non-consenter needs an even more tangible capability. He (allow me to be sexist and refer to non-consenters as men) needs to be able to identify what impact this collaboration will have on him or his organization. If that specific, tangible value proposition isn’t clear, he won’t learn to collaborate. Even if it was his New Year’s resolution.

Our job – as advocates of cross-sector collaboration – is to help non-consenters identify such a clear value proposition. Now if I could only learn how to do that better.

On Jan 7, 2014, at 4:27 PM, Alison Gold wrote:

Thanks for getting the ball rolling, Chris.  I’m going to take a crack at a different question that you raised: Can you teach people to collaborate?

The optimistic Midwesterner in me says “of course!” and that Liz Skelton’s post is as true for novice collaborators, as for experienced ones. Particularly her points on being clear on what you’re trying to achieve and acknowledging how each organization and/or individual has contributed to the current result and needs to change to produce a different one.  However, the realist in me —the one who’s staffed cross-sector partnerships in communities, and now works at an organization that funds them—knows that even those two things are difficult and messy and don’t happen overnight, or even in a year’s time.  And I actually think this is one of the other great challenges of collaborations—pacing.

While I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer to pacing in collaboration, my sense is that it’s important to name a shared goal as early in the process as possible. I used to work at a chamber of commerce that was founded in the 1880s. In its conference room was prominently displayed the letter that led to the organization’s founding. It was from the publisher of the local newspaper to 6 other prominent businessmen inviting them to get together to address transportation and sanitation issues (less delicately: horse poop in the streets).  Those gentlemen knew why they were collaborating and what they were trying to achieve from the get go. The work of their collaboration was to figure out how to work together to solve the problem.

What I’ve learned at Living Cities, through The Integration Initiative and our research on cross-sector partnerships, is that collaborations that have impact are not so different from those seven businessmen.  They engage in two types of behaviors: trust building and maintenance and problem-solving (for a fuller exploration of both ideas follow the link and check out pages 16-19).  I’d even go so far as to say that these two behaviors are actually the primary work collaborations are hired to do because they get partners to the point where they can work honestly with one another and where they have a shared understanding of what is producing the current results.  I’d also say that trust building and problem-solving are prerequisites for getting a collaboration from clarity on its goal to the point where all the partners can answer Liz’s excellent fifth point, “what’s my piece of the mess?”

But, I’m eager to hear what Curtis thinks.

On Jan 23, 2014 at 9:03 AM, Curtis Ogden wrote:

At IISC we have built our organization’s mission on the conviction that collaboration is both a necessary and teachable skill in pursuit of social change.  We have first-hand experience of seeing people grow in their collaborative capacities. But as your contributions and correspondence already point out, it’s not just about skill.  It’s about commitment, and caring . . .

If you don’t see the value of collaboration or are unwilling to take a leap of faith, then the horse is not even at the water.  So there’s got to be some openness.  And I’m glad to report that I have witnessed some “conversion” experiences in my eight years at the Interaction Institute for Social Change.  To be sure, I have also seen my fair share of those who resisted to the bitter end, if they stayed that long.

So what makes for the difference?  Let me try to break some of this down a bit.  The elements of collaboration (IMHO):

  • Skill – creating conditions for effective collaboration/building trust, designing effective process, deft facilitation, generative listening and inquiry, getting on the balcony/holding the big picture, thinking broadly about “success” (results, process, relationships), celebration of others’ success, being a connector/network weaver, understanding social/power dynamics . . .
  • Attitude – not knowing, humility, bring your expertise but don’t get trapped by it, belief in abundance, appreciation of difference and diversity, authenticity, curiosity, caring, eagerness to learn, seek win-win, respect for others’ perspectives . . .
  • Will – the drive for ongoing personal and systemic development, to push through and keep the collaborative going even when the plane starts to shake, eyes on the prize, willing to put reputation and resources on the line . . .

If we think about these elements as leverage points in an individual or collective/group system, then the deepest and most profound is will.  When the drive is there, it really helps to make the rest flow.  Without will, well, then we have a problem.  Will and skill without the right attitude requires coaching (reminds me of some of the stories I’ve been hearing about different players as I’ve watched the Australian Open who have worked on their internal motives to become better players).  When will and attitude are there, then skill-building can come relatively easily.

So I think what we may be talking about is what we do if the will is not there, because let’s face it, we’ve seen those collaboratives and networks that have functioned well until the going got tough, and then everyone got out of there.  For me, will is about cultivating a worldview that helps us to viscerally understand how we are interconnected, why we must do the work together, how we suffer and can get in our own way when we do not . . . I’ve had some experience around this kind of transformation (and I would use that very word for it).  It stems from a holistic kind of understanding, one that requires immersive experience as one is grasped by something larger.  While this might sound rather “out there” or of too tall an order, I think what we have done and seen through programs like the Barr Fellows and Community Practitioners Network gets at it.

Let me stop there for now.

So what do you think?  What does it take to learn to collaborate? Share your thoughts with us at:

Alison Gold @AKGold11

Chris Thompson @ccarsonthompson

Curtis Ogden @curtisogden

Or leave a comment below.


  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks all. Great conversation. One thing I’ve seen is that belief in the value proposition doesn’t have to be embraced by everyone right away. With enough folks who believe we are smarter together, it’s possible to get a collaborative venture started. Think of the adoption curve–some folks will be early adopters, others easily persuaded, still others will take longer to become fans and some may never come along. I think it’s a delicate balance to find “enough” of the “right people” to get started, and also to constantly be looking for ways to broaden the circles of engagement.

  • Steve Fritsch says:

    Excellent conversation. Call me crazy, but the way it’s described above sometimes makes me wonder whether someone’s decision to collaborate and follow through on that decision (especially within the complex cross-sector partnerships described above) is not unlike someone’s decision to no longer be addicted to drugs or alcohol. The rationale, along with the enablers and disablers have many similar or related terms. Societal reality requiring a new approach to “life” that requires some attitude and will (along with patience, as that relapse may occur). Maybe there’s a research parallel that can be explored for the betterment of greater collaboration. Thanks for sharing!

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