Sixteen Lessons Learned About Working in Collaboration

Submitted by Community Animator on October 15, 2014 - 2:37pm
from Mary Pickering and Robert Plitt - 2013



  • Collaborations SHOULDN’T be launched unless there is something that can be done together that can’t be achieved alone. There needs to be a clear assessment up front that working jointly – which requires time and effort from all participants – is going to improve outcomes. 


  •  Multi-stakeholder collaborations require patience and razor focus. Quick outcomes are not to be expected. Time has to be spent building trust and demonstrating value to the individual organizations. Even when organizations are generally in agreement with broad outcomes, building the space and trust for collaboration dominates the early stages. Collaboration is time consuming at the best of times so when you do engage, have very clear objectives and outcomes.


  • Design for alignment first, and then move towards integration. Alignment allows for everyone to feel they are getting something out of the process for themselves. Integration – where groups begin influencing each other’s strategies, products and directions, emerges out of alignment.


  • Maintain regular and action oriented communications. Don’t let long periods of time elapse. Keep people engaged by providing them value and giving them tasks that lead to valuable outcomes for them individually.


  • Not all participants will want to collaborate in the same way. Create opportunities for individuals and groups to participate at depths of commitment they feel comfortable with. Some groups may find that their capacity and interest in participating may change over time. Leverage input in any way you can.


  • Multi-stakeholder collaborations attract attention from funders and decision-makers. Highlighting the diverse nature of the collaboration membership can provide stronger interest from media, influencers and funders.


  • Collaborations allow groups to play to their strengths while leveraging their efforts. Different groups can do what they do best while connecting and co-operating to achieve alignment of their work with others’. Consider the assets represented by all the participating groups, including networks and access to different kinds of resources.


  • Joint message development allows key messages to be amplified. Having diverse voices reinforce key points means that target audiences get clearer, consistent messaging, rather than hearing a multitude of various voices and concerns.


  • Co-ordinated communications planning avoids duplication and supports cross-promotion. When groups share information about their planned events – and adjust dates and formats to avoid overlap of activities and content – duplication of effort and splitting of audience attention can be avoided. Further, groups can cross-promote and reinforce each other’s events and messages to their own audiences through and comment on others’ research and events through media and social media.


  •  A “backbone” organization is critical to support collaboration. With agreement from the group, an individual or organization needs to be tasked with the role of supporting the collaboration including organizing meetings, circulating information, creating a central communications centre (such as a website or a regular time for phone meetings), developing joint funding proposals, and providing facilitation support to the group. This role can be taken on by a collaboration member, but a pitfall is that the person coordinating this work may be hindered by playing two roles, presenting challenges to their ability to effectively represent their own organization’s interests or to lead the dialogue when they feel the need to do so.  Another option is to use an external “broker” to support the collaboration or to dedicate contracted staff to the backbone tasks. The pitfall here is that an external player may not have the core knowledge or relationships to allow them to effectively support the group through some of the challenges it may face.


  • Collaborations offer excellent learning opportunities for all participants. This is because participants represent different perspectives and sectors, have different sources of information or intelligence, and because they call on the types of personal skills that support group work – self-editing, active listening, diplomacy and consensus building as well as accepting some ambiguous times when groups must also acknowledge their differences.


  • Individuals are not their organizations. Individual participants in the collaboration had to check in with their own organizations so couldn’t always provide immediate approval of or support for strategies developed by the group – time must be allowed for the “filtering up” of collaboration strategies back to the leadership of participating groups. Also, if an individual representative leaves or changes jobs, it can be a challenge to ensure that a replacement from their organization will be assigned, especially if the representative had not been successful in fully “on-boarding” their organization with respect to the work of the collaboration.


  • Multi-stakeholder collaboration fosters an opportunity to build broader support for sustainability issues. Working across diverse sectors can help sustainability advocates better understand key public motivations and to highlight the complementary benefits of sustainability issues with other areas of concern, such as public health, local economic development, and city livability.


  • We need mechanisms to better evaluate how collaborations improve outcomes. This work is costly and time-consuming. We need to know how much value we get out of it to “prove and improve” its value. To do this we need to make efforts to measure and document the work and provide useful case studies into the collective impact community.


  • Collaboration is not a default setting. Without the intervention of initiator players intent on exploring and supporting collaboration, groups may not work in tandem. But once groups have worked together in one setting, it may be easier for them to do so again.


  • The collaboration technique requires professional attention and skill. The job of attracting and supporting a collaborative group and providing them with value is an important and difficult one. This area is becoming a newly acknowledged field, offering professional development opportunities and resources for practitioners. We should not assume that this work can be undertaken without proper support, training and mentoring.