In working with a number of collaborative efforts over the past twenty years between non-profits, corporates and universities I have come to several counter-intuitive understandings. Top of my list is that collaboration begins alone. Too often the effort to collaborate, whether this be instigated by financial hardship or opportunity, policy change, or good intentions, is rushed and over-anxious. Too many organisations and individuals seek to partner before they have genuinely understood and established themselves. Without a clear identity, collaboration either washes over or colonizes and each leads to poor outcomes and a resistance to future efforts to work together.
A good collaborator requires a very clear idea of their own uniqueness, identity and sense of purpose. Step one in this process is delving deep into the history and current work of the organisation (looking for, in that slightly jaded consultant’s language, the core DNA). This cannot be done in some quick, superficial way but as a core set of explorations around what it is like to work at and with the organisation from a variety of stakeholder perspectives. Questions must explore product and processes, history and turning points, strategy and practice, culture and meaning, the stories and narratives we tell but most critically; how do we see the work we do as making a difference and how is this enacted (or not enacted)?
It is only after we go through this process can we successfully explore collaboration. Those groups (and individuals) who know what makes them unique, can be ideal as partners. They are more open to those who can enhance or extend their impact; they are more comfortable with innovation or innovators as they are genuinely committed to impact, and they are not so much looking for funders or solutions as ways to increase or improve the service they deliver.
Of course it is necessary to distinguish between those groups who value their uniqueness and identity and seek to explore and extend it, with those who wear it as a shield or think they have reached some ultimate way of working.
I suspect there is a Greek adage “The way to the Agora is through the hermit’s cave” or if there is not, there should be.
Mark Creyton is Director Education, Research and Policy of Volunteering Queensland. Mark is the founder of Queensland’s Innovate Symposium, co-designer and co-deliverer of the “Leadership by Design” program and develops and leads a range of collaborative projects across all sectors of the community with particular focus on innovation in university community and working with young leaders. Mark was awarded QUT’s Vice-Chancellor’s award for excellence-community partner in 2013.
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