Cutting Through the Complexity: A Roadmap for Effective Collaboration

Collaborations and networks rarely achieve their ambitious goals. Here’s what it takes to make them actually work.

By David Ehrlichman, David Sawyer, and Matthew Spence

Collaboration is appealing in concept but challenging in practice. While extensive resources — including ones from the Community Tool Box, The Intersector Project, and — exist online to support collaborative efforts, the fact remains that we human beings are simply not very good at making “we” work. And yet, most changemakers today acknowledge that to address the complex social and environmental challenges we face we must learn how to collaborate — across organizations, sectors, networks, and differences. Effective collaboration must become a reality, not just an aspiration.

Most of us are familiar with the challenges of collaboration. Personality conflicts get in the way. Participants avoid difficult conversations. People are too formal and polite. We don’t take time to deliberately build trust. We don’t understand leadership in a collaborative context. And we fail to devote resources to essential coordination functions so that collaborations can truly flourish.

Building on the work of many others, we have developed a roadmap that cuts through the complexity. We have tested and refined this framework over years and across domains, and we tend to apply it in the spirit of statistician George Box, who famously said, “All models are wrong. Some models are useful.” We have found this it useful and hope others will too.

The Five Cs: a roadmap for effective collaboration

While the why (the focus) and the what (the activities) of collaborations differ widely, the how (the process) is remarkably consistent. Launching and sustaining effective collaborations and networks requires that we pay constant attention to five activities:

  • Clarifying purpose
  • Convening the right people
  • Cultivating trust
  • Coordinating existing activities
  • Collaborating for systems impact

These activities help us navigate the personal, political, cultural, and organizational dynamics inherent in collaborative efforts. They are never fully complete, and they are not strictly linear. They inevitably loop back and forth on each other, and require revisiting throughout any collaborative effort.

While it’s impossible to know exactly what’s going to happen until people actually get in a room together, the purpose of the roadmap is to outline the “deliberate” aspect of the collaborative process — the aspect that, to a meaningful degree, can be planned and facilitated. Here, we outline why each of these activities is important, what tactics can be applied to address each one, and how to put the framework into practice.

Click here to read the full article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.