Post 2: The Behaviors and Mechanisms that Promote and Sustain Successful Collaboration
It has taken organizations and people in the Metro Detroit community,
as well as across the state, a long time to merely talk about
collaborating. This dialogue and openness to working across
organizations set in motion the development and launch of several
collaborative endeavors targeting some of our biggest problems. This
achievement, however, is only the beginning, signaling the long, hard
road to actually doing collaboration – a difficult and risky venture
for all types of efforts and organizations.
In the doing, we can learn from successful inter-organizational
collaborations working at varying life cycle stages. My research, based
on higher education organizations and informed by the organizational
literature, identified five basic elements that are common across
collaborative ventures: engagement and participation; developing common
purposes, mission and vision; leadership; linking mechanisms; and
dispute resolutions. This first three are behaviors, while the remaining
two are mechanisms. A deeper look into each of these will help to
provide a better understanding of the complexities associated with collaboration.
It is only a first step when organizations decide to collaborate. The
act of doing collaboration is done by individuals. Rank and file
administrators and staff need to decide that it is important
enough to invest their personal resources and engage the collaborative
process as change champions. These individuals must work not only within
their own organizations, but also with their external counterparts.
Common to these individuals is the difficult balancing act between
loyalty to their own organizations and the additional dedication to
collaboration that offers potential opportunities to support
organizational objectives. The bottom line is that people make
collaboration happen, but at a great deal of personal risk both within
and outside their organizations.
Usually organizations are on the same page in terms of achieving a
particular objective when they come to collaboration, but this is not a
done deal once the contract is signed. Partners must develop a common
purpose, mission and vision for their collaboration as its own endeavor.
Finding common ground, unfortunately, is limited because there will
always be competing interests or values. Only patience, time, and
experience enable greater congruencies and pathways to finding the
common ground. In other words, this behavior is particularly challenging
for new collaborative efforts and therefore is of critical importance.
Leadership is an important element of managing alliances, and it can
and must originate from multiple levels in an organization. Positional
leaders (e.g., presidents, CEOs, VPs) set the direction of an
organization to collaborate, and the rank and file leaders (e.g.,
directors, managers, coordinators) enact collaborative activities –
both are essential to the overall success of a collaborative effort.
These leaders also exhibit several common characteristics – ability to
build support and consent across partners, and high levels of
self-monitoring, which is the ability to fit into multiple situations
and environments as needed. In other words, collaborative leaders have
to be chameleon coalition builders.
The glue for collaborating is the same as the glue for families and
organizations – personal relationships. And the sharing of information
and trust is critical to building and maintaining relationships. To
facilitate the flow of information and conveyance of trust, many
collaborative endeavors develop linking mechanisms.
Linking mechanisms can include an informal ad hoc team of change agents charged with doing the collaboration across the member partners to a formal,
institutionalized separate entity that serves all the members for the
exclusive purpose of facilitating collaboration. Regardless of the type,
collaboration succeeds when there is some form of mechanism that links
partners and promotes and supports the collaborative endeavor.
Finally, collaborations demand a mechanism for resolving disputes.
Conflict is a universal reality for organizations and individuals
engaged in collaboration. Disputes will regularly arise because tension
is constant between partners as the values and objectives of each
partner compete for attention and resource allocations. Successful
collaborations find mechanisms – both formal and informal – for
resolving these issues. These include the more institutionalized method
of outlining a process within a collaborative contract to relying on
individuals to share information as transparently as possible to
communicate the reasons and purpose behind decisions and actions as a
foundation to finding the win-win.
These five elements – engagement and participation; developing common
purposes, missions, and visions; leadership; linking mechanisms; and
dispute resolution mechanisms – are ingredients to successful
collaboration. They are the behaviors and mechanisms that enable us to
recommit ourselves to collaboration beyond the initial agreement to
partner up, and lead us to achieving together what we cannot do alone.
And yes, collaboration does sound a lot like marriage, for which it
shares many similar principles for success. It also shares a similar
The bottom line is that it is not enough to talk about collaboration – we
must also recognize the work in doing collaboration.