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How to spot a weak link in collaboration

I’m fond of repeating that one does not really collaborate unless the process of collaboration changes the person a bit. This change-inducing quality of collaboration is at the same time a positive and a negative; and the attractive features of change are commonly challenged by a long list of cons. It’s not any different with collaboration. Again and again I say that collaboration is not a short cut to better outcomes. If anything, it is far less likely to produce anything when it is treated as a quick fix while masquerading as a serious strategy. Perhaps this is why I think it is vital to understand that, while the strategies may be clever, their execution can be full of weak spots which have to be mitigated.

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It would be presumptive to attempt to create a comprehensive framework of scenarios to use for identifying weak links in a collaborative process. Nevertheless, there are some that should be considered at the outset when the collaboration strategy is being crafted. Specifically, I want to focus only on inter-organisational collaboration.

One often screamingly obvious weakness occurs when two or more collaborating agencies have individual preferences in whom they would like to deal with. As a way of avoiding talking to many people (which can can be quite a nerve-wracking process), we tend to seek out individuals in partner agencies that we like personally. While completely understandable, this can equally be a weakness that can become expensive. I have observed individuals who quickly develop rapport and become de facto representatives of their respective agencies while working together on a project. While this is beneficial in an overall sense because it affords trust and better communication, it can equally create a setting where things are not properly monitored in an objective way. In other words, groupthink and a culture of camaraderie can develop a blind spot; and this can result in other staff across the partnering agencies working on a number of presumptions. The point here is not to discourage good communication, closeness and trust, but to ensure that a healthy degree of distance is maintained and that all those involved in the collaborative project feel equally included.

Another weak link in collaboration can emerge when external pressures befall a partnering agency, and an uneasiness is generated by being locked into something that should potentially be put aside for the time being. Collaboration should not be treated as a contractual obligation as much as it should be considered a common-interest entrepreneurial strategy. The difference then is that we do not seek to have all kinds of clauses (explicit or implied) but to structure the collaborative governance to be flexible and adaptive to emerging circumstances. It is when we are prepared to work with our partner in a truly collaborative sense that we are able to accept changing external circumstances and negotiate a way forward. This is a critical element of the plan because there are no guarantees that forecasted circumstances at the time of creating a collaborative project will play out. As in all good relationships, partners should adapt and work in good faith knowing that their investment will pay off at some point.

strenghtFinally, I would suggest that some of the most common weaknesses in a collaboration process are the ones that emerge as a result of a hasty actions. Collaboration tends to have a polarising effect; people either get drawn to it quickly or are very suspicious and look for reasons not to collaborate. This should not be a surprise to any strategist. Some people thrive in a collaborative environment, while others prefer working in a more detached (but not disconnected) manner. For instance, some studies indicate that females tend to do better in a collaborative setting than their male counterparts. The promise of beneficial outcomes through collaboration can lead to fast hand-shakes, photo-ops and media statements, which can in turn lead to a high pressure environments where partners have to fast-track their understanding their shared goals and purpose. What happens here is very common. People confuse good intent for an indication of ease of process in achieving the shared vision.

These weak links in the collaboration process can play out differently depending on a number of factors, such as the size of collaboration, the length of the project, the number of partners, the nature of individual agencies and so on. Regardless, weak links should be approached as a fantastic opportunity for better analysis of what the collaboration should be about and how it can be best managed. After all, good things will come to those who pay attention to detail.

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