Conditions for Collaboration — Part 1: When it’s really hard

Collaboration, even amongst well-intended organisations that share the same values and purpose, can feel way too hard.

Nick Stanhope
Aug 10, 2020 · 4 min read

The Digital Fund sets out not just to help transform the capabilities of individual grantees, but also wider ecosystems and collaborative efforts. This concept of 'generous leadership’ flows through the intentions and design of the fund.

But we should acknowledge that collaboration is really hard and that the conditions for genuine collaboration to thrive rarely exist. And there’s also a question about whether collaboration should be such a priority.

I absolutely believe that we should all have our heads up, defining our work in relation to others, focused on our contribution to a collective transformation of what is clearly a structurally inequitable and unsustainable system.

Moreover, collaboration is clearly a critical part of how we unlock more impact and change from the vast landscape of organisations and individuals working on similar and overlapping problems, ambitions and challenges, in the same systems, with and for the same people and communities.

But collaboration is not an end in itself, it is not a good in its own right and by becoming regarded as a must-have value for every organisation and a default part of everything we do, it can become a diversion from the real work.

Here are some of the common frustrations I experience when participating in or supporting collaboration…

  • Implicit impact of competition — as Nerys Anthony at The Children’s Society neatly puts it, “Despite the Covid-fueled collaboration, market drivers remain, the system is ultimately set up for us to compete against other charities and organisations.” This plays a lurking, ever-present role and drives damaging misalignment between what happens inside and outside of collaborative efforts.
  • Inefficiencies — there is a lot of friction in the way we collaborate, partly because the methods all feel a bit clunky and out of date, partly because the shared infrastructure (networks, platforms, spaces, data etc) that would make it easy are badly underinvested in and, most fundamentally, because collaboration goes against so much of how organisations are set up and run.
  • Duplication of roles — because of the way the social sector works, organisations tend to systematically duplicate roles and capabilities. This can makes the process of designing roles within a collaborative partnership feel more like an artificial, power-based division of territory, rather than a series of interdependent specialisms, assets, networks and perspectives that can come together to complement each other.
  • Different ways of working — we’ve been learning a lot about how to work with partners that work in very different ways (culture, style, structure, processes etc) and it’s a hard, inevitable problem, but it adds even more friction and cost to collaboration and often makes you wish you weren’t collaborating at all
  • Narrowness — collaboration too easily reflects and compounds existing inequality and underrepresentation, as people naturally reach out to and find alignment most easily with those most similar to themselves, from within their networks. Collaboration gets better the more diverse and pluralistic the group, but that requires more time, effort and commitment.
  • Over-claiming — perhaps an inevitable symptom of the dominant social sector culture and funding model, but the hours and hours of time spent in collaborative sessions hearing partners sell their wares, claim ownership of territory and position themselves as the single/central solution is wasteful, pointless and deeply undermining of collaborative intentions
  • Committing proper time and resource — partners find the additional time and effort of collaboration hard to find and sustain, as it normally isn’t a specific part of funded or commissioned activities. The plans, budgets, funding proposals and tender requirements that we all serve too often undermine collaborative efforts before they have started.

Collaboration can be brilliantly productive, especially when it is well designed and facilitated (rather than when a bunch of people are put in a room together for ages). But experiences such as those described above can often feel like a burden.

This is because collaboration has to fight against entrenched norms and structures that keep us deeply rooted in independent, inegalitarian mindsets and behaviour — mistrust, bragging, defensiveness, secrecy, resentment, a rush to criticise, a glee at the failure of others and concerted clinging to power.

In amongst these structures and norms and surrounded by these mindsets and behaviours, collaboration doesn’t have a chance. Collaboration — much like co-creation and co-design and other stuff with co- at the start of it — very rarely has the conditions in which it can thrive, bring the best out of multiple, diverse partners and accelerate progress and impact.

So how what are the conditions within which true collaboration can thrive?

Part 2 suggests three forms of shared infrastructure which can help to create the conditions for genuine collaboration — shared views of what is going on; shared data, tech and design infrastructure and, foundationally, shared ways of working together.

It draws on some of the great thinking and practice out there and work through some examples of conditions that enable great collaboration, such as these challenging principles from Panthea Lee for co-creation; Sarah Drummond’s work on the limits of “too much of the how, and not enough on the what”; Jennifer Armbrust’s work on the Sisterhood Economy; Cassie Robinson’s writing on wisdom (still a list I refer to regularly) and collective obsessions; David Robinson and Immy Robinson’s work on relationship centred practice; Luke Billingham and Shaun Danquah’s thoughts on the charity sector; Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy; and more and more practical experience of models like collective impact, field building and systems transitions.