WIG CEO Blog October 2021 – Collaboration: It's all in the preparation

In discussion with our membership, it appears that of the three C’s: coordination, cooperation and collaboration, collaboration is the hardest but has the greatest chance of beneficial outcomes. Of course, circumstances may only call for coordination or cooperation. Still, collaboration or a collaborative partnership is essential for complicated challenges with shared aims and major stakeholders.  

This truth has been amply demonstrated in successful responses to the pandemic, not least the vaccine rollout. WIG’s very purpose is to provide the understanding around the context and the exposure to collaborative opportunity.  

With better outcomes comes greater effort. Whereas communication and some checks and controls can largely achieve coordination and cooperation, collaboration is a whole different matter. Now, those who have made a science of this or deliver collaboration for a living will doubtless see what follows as simplistic or even flawed, but they seem to be the areas people have identified. 

First, the benefits. Here are five that seem to be generally acknowledged: 

  1. Shared perspective and knowledge 
  2. Diversity of thought 
  3. The potential to innovate 
  4. Harnessing the strengths of partners for the benefit of all 
  5. Quality of a solution that is achievable and efficient by design (as opposed to being forged in isolation and clunking into a delivery phase with a grinding of gears). 

Fine – so why can it be so difficult? Well, ‘people’. Collaboration normally requires the sort of compromise that some see as surrender or the relinquishing of power, responsibility, or interest. This means the approach to collaboration is everything. 

In a way, presenting a template for something as human as collaborating is equivalent to trying to provide a scientific answer to an artistic question. Nevertheless, in various conversations WIG has had across an extensive sample of public, private and not-for-profit organisations, there appear to be some common denominators. 

Dynamics 

The old axiom ‘where you sit is where you stand’ points at the perspectives people build based on experience or what they have absorbed as truth. It is that people bring into the room with them, clanking like medieval knights – all armour and swords. First and foremost, teams must get to know each other as people to build trust.  

All must come to recognise that others are just as capable, have equally daunting challenges, work just as hard and are worthy of listening to and understanding. This is almost certainly better done socially than around a whiteboard. The next stage is to develop a tone of professional challenge, permissions for honesty and mutual respect.  

Armour and swords should be left at the door. 

Context (truth) 

Nothing will be as corrosive as the sense of hidden agendas and the whiff of smoke screens. If there is politics, then talk about the reality; if there is a profit motive, then get it out in the open. The context for the joint venture must be as complete a picture as possible. Unexpected truth later in the process is the greatest threat to success. 

Common cause (aim) 

In the military, defining the mission statement is a substantial part of the planning process. What constitutes success for all parties? What are the timelines, resource limits and other constraints and restraints?  

Clarity is key, and the closer this looks like a contract, the less ambiguity can creep in – which is another risk. Of course, there is a balance between the very human business of the mutual and loyal support required and the unyielding nature of a contractual approach to what defines success, but lack of certainty will be a problem.   

Boundary setting (expectations) 

Part of the understanding of context is an understanding of expectations and limitations. Hasty assumptions that more resources can be found, permissions granted, third party agreements generated, timelines slipped or political agreements secured are dangerous to make, and a good idea of where risk lies in these areas and the limitations of collaborators is essential. 

Working the problem 

Harness the diversity of approach and perspective that the collaboration brings. Avoid constrained thinking or the swift resort to existing approaches – include the novel, dismiss quickly (fail fast), and move on. Generate options (each of which will require compromise in different areas) and red team them. The plan must generate consensus and those leaving the room must be believers, even if their individual preferences have not held sway, they must understand and accept why. Finally, have the structures to execute as one team. 

Reading this you might be struck by just how much was groundwork and setting the stage.  

This setting up is very much what WIG is about – we champion co-operation, learning and understanding between sectors, to create better business, better government and ultimately a better society. This is achieved through our topical events programme, suite of cross-sector leadership programmes and cross-sector talent opportunities. 

As any good decorator will tell you – it’s all in the preparation.  

 

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