What is effective collaboration?

Many role descriptions specify the need for an ability to collaborate with stakeholders. Yet collaborating is not a simple process. It is more than building a relationship and having a chat.

Developing policy aimed at dealing with complex, tricky problems can benefit from harnessing the skills, resources and knowledge of interested parties. Understanding what is needed to make these collaborations effective is vital for those involved.

Researchers at the John Curtin Institute have released research findings about effective collaboration, based on five case studies in Australia and New Zealand (Attributes of effective collaboration: insights from five case studies in Australia and New Zealand).

Perhaps the most significant point the authors make is that “although effective collaborations have a number of things in common, all collaborations are in some respects unique.” Their point is that collaboration is not a set process, it is not a ‘thing’. Rather it is a set of interpersonal relationships shaped by the problem being addressed, the capabilities of those involved, and local context in which the problems occur.

The research provides a table of characteristics of successful collaborations established by other research. These characteristics are not surprising and include items like clear objectives and problem definition, powerful sponsors, mutual understanding, respect and trust, having a detailed implementation plan, and accepted norms and rules of operation. An applicant making a case for their collaboration skills and experience would find this table worth reading.

The five case studies cover a range of wicked problems. They include prevention of violence against women, emergency management, offender reintegration, and childhood obesity. The research leads the authors to identify other factors for collaborative success. These factors include:

  1. Designing a fit-for-purpose collaboration approach that suits the specific problem to be addressed. It is not feasible to impose a standardised collaboration framework with little regard for local circumstances and local aspirations.

2. Understanding the relationships between, and culture of, collaborators. Having good communication and interpersonal skills are insufficient for effective collaboration. The authors refer to ‘collaborative intelligence’ (CQ), a skill set that “combines an acute sensitivity to the interpersonal dimension of human interaction with an astute appreciation of the emotional resonance of systems, relationships between organisations, and the ‘baggage’ brought to the collaboration by various actors.” As Dr John Butcher, an ANZSOG Adjunct Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Policy Curtin University points out:

“CQ encompasses a number of personal attributes, such as knowing when to take charge and when to let others lead; a willingness to listen and respond nimbly to changed circumstances or new information; a capacity for empathy and the ability to see things from other people’s point of view; a deep appreciation of systems and how they intersect and interact; and the ability to forge enduring relationships based on trust.”

3. Having realistic time frames in mind for collaboration to be effective is also essential. The case studies exhibited long lead times for design and implementation, involving complex processes of relationship building and agreeing on ways of working. Often these processes take much longer than anticipated and this timeframe needs commitment and acceptance.

4. Consideration needs to be given to how collaboration will demonstrate impact early, but realistically, in a project. Demonstrating impact in the early stages of collaboration is difficult. As evidence that relationships are being built is not of equal value to other measures of impact, managers may become impatient with progress.

5. Another factor is that collaboration can be difficult to sustain over a long period particularly if people involved change. Time may also erode a collective sense of mission and commitment, reducing the effectiveness of further collaboration.

In summary, the authors provide a list of important themes that emerge from their research, themes that people involved in collaboration would find worth considering. These themes, as they relate to collaboration on wicked problems, are:

  • Collaboration needs time and dedicated resourcing.
  • Due to the unpredictable trajectory for collaboration people need a capacity to tolerate uncertainty.
  • Effective collaboration requires significant investment of time, effort and emotional energy.
  • Collaboration demands personal dedication and commitment to the issues.
  • Partners to collaboration need to provide assurance both to other partners and to their executives and board.
  • Nimbleness and adaptability are needed to deal with changing circumstances. Terms of reference are useful starting points, but may need changing.
  • Collaboration may not always be the most appropriate strategy to use.

Based on these insights, an applicant seeking to establish their collaboration credentials may need to consider whether they took account of:

  • The full complexities of the policy issue and their impact on a collaboration process.
  • The time, effort and resources needed to sustain the collaboration.
  • Their efforts to keep partners and managers/executives informed about and convinced of progress, even if that progress seems unmeasurable.
  • Ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
  • Skills used to sustain the process over the long term.
Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.