Moving beyond smart to wise collaboration | Article

Organisational wisdom expert and leadership facilitator Dr Jane Gaukroger describes the importance of aiming for wise collaboration that considers the impact as well as the process.   

Key Insights 

  • Current challenges including climate change, inequality, social marginalisation, deteriorating mental health and anticipation of the impacts of AI necessitate collaboration at an unprecedented scale. 
  • Smart collaboration fosters a shared vision alongside a commitment to diversity of perspectives and voices.
  • Wise collaboration is about how we all care for each other and our planet.
"We need to lean into collaborative leadership in an ambiguous space to form common cause with others, being willing to share resources and risk losing some profile to achieve a shared ambition that will make a difference to the nation and the people we serve" 
- Mike Adamson, CEO British Red Cross ‘The Collaboration Playbook’ 2023 

The call to collaborate 

Current challenges including climate change, inequality, social marginalisation, deteriorating mental health and anticipation of the impacts of AI necessitate collaboration at an unprecedented scale.  As Mike Adamson puts it, we need ‘to form a common cause’. 

WIG’s ongoing dialogue with leaders across organisations and sectors reveals how intensely pressure is being felt to deliver a step change across many areas.  

Collaboration, in the literal sense of working together (from the Latin col-laborare) is a common feature of most people’s work experience. Our work typically involves others – and is rarely conducted without contact with some co-workers.  

We are fundamentally social animals working together to survive – in networks expanding through tribal hunter-gatherers, communal farming, city-based industrialised and now a globalised tech era.   

Smart collaboration 

Smart collaboration - combining capabilities to do something bigger than any of us are able to do alone is an accepted notion – and has carried us a long way. 

Intra-organisational collaboration 

Intra-organisational collaboration is increasingly fostered through visions, values frameworks, strategies and people development models intended to build shared mindsets and actions. And there is a parallel commitment to diversity of perspectives and voices, which calls on empathy, openness and curiosity. Emotional intelligence, dialogue and inquiry skills are cultivated. Trust and respect are seen as desirable qualities in a healthy organisational culture. We seek a balance between valuing the individual and finding unity in purpose.  Uhlig and Raboin (2015) describe collaborative leadership as ‘authentically curious about multiple viewpoints in appreciative ways’.   

“We seek a balance between valuing the individual and finding unity in purpose.”   
Inter-organisational Collaboration 

Beyond this, inter-organisational collaboration is also essential in much of our work. We are partners in a web of relationships.  We need each other to deliver both outcomes which have our local organisational focus (and over which we may exercise a reasonable degree of control) and ones which span a much wider range of stakeholders. We may immediately think here of the big, public-realm issues (health, education, international aid) but it is equally the case in the private sector with the interdependence of manufacturers, retailers, technology, suppliers, logistics, and transportation.  And in the inter-organisational space, we might notice a stronger tendency to rely on contracts rather than trust-based collaboration. 

Indeed, our everyday experience tells us there are many challenges to collaboration in practice – both within and across organisations.  As work has become more complex and with increasing specialisation, there is a strong pull to functional and professional silos.  A focus on individual performance (at both the organisation and person level) directs our attention to what we can control.  We feel the tensions as we strive to find the balance between different stakeholder needs in a volatile context.  Sharing or even ceding control to others from outside our discipline or organisation can feel deeply uncomfortable – there is risk and potential loss in it. 

So how can we be even better in our collaborative efforts at the level Mike Adamson directs us towards?   

Wise collaboration 

Last summer’s award-winning film ‘Oppenheimer’ is a striking study of smart collaboration across science, military and political fields, nationally and internationally, in the face of crisis.   But filmgoers may have noticed a line in the middle: ‘Genius is no guarantee of wisdom’.  And we might say the same about collaboration.  Ends matter.   

So, could a focus on wise collaboration help us move forward? 

Research on organisational wisdom indicates that collaboration may be an aspect of but is not sufficient for wisdom.  Collaboration sits alongside other characteristics conscious -attention to what really matters for us all, and willingness to explore and challenge our moral and ethical stance, look up and around from our context, and hold deep and genuine care and compassion for wider interests beyond our own.  

There is a risk if we see collaboration primarily with an instrumental lens (I collaborate if I can see what’s in it for me) or if we start to see collaboration as an end in itself.  

Nicholas Maxwell, the leading UK academic writer on wisdom, speaks of lack of attention to social wisdom as the ‘underlying cause of our present global malaise’ (2019).   

Many organisations are good at the mechanics of smart collaboration. And that is to be celebrated.   But the challenge is bigger.  Collaboration can be more than the combining skills and talents for competitive advantage, improving organisational performance or cultivating complex multi-stakeholder partnerships. It is more than emotional intelligence. 

Wise collaboration is about how we all care for each other and our planet.  

In the face of current challenges, it calls on our humble courage in action and faith in our connection. 

In September 2024, WIG will launch a new six-month Advanced Collaborative Leadership Programme for mid to senior leaders who want to deepen and develop their collaborative leadership with peers from across sectors

Written by

Dr Jane Gaukroger is a very experienced leadership development consultant who has spent her whole working life in the field of organisational, leadership and people development. She is an EMCC qualified executive coach working with clients at board level and in senior leadership roles from across public and private sectors. 

She holds a doctorate in organisational wisdom and brings a strong focus to enabling leaders to work with their strengths and to expand their use of multiple intelligences to lead in complexity and uncertainty.

Clients have included Defra, the Department of Health, BEIS, the Home Office and she has worked in many different parts of the NHS on leadership development and transformation. She has extensive experience in Higher Education and her private sector clients have included global manufacturer PPG, and technology firms IPC and Indra. She coordinates a multi-sectoral development community interested in cultivating wisdom at work.

Earlier in her career she worked for global consulting firms leading the people development elements of complex transformation programmes. She now specialises in development of wise leadership in the face of global challenges including inequality and climate change.

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