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In this series of articles we have built the case for “why” collaboration is critical for regional impact (and indeed in other areas too), how collaboration has led to success in a New Zealand regional context and made a difference for business, regions and communities. In this third article we expand on the “Art of Collaboration” to support leaders in Aotearoa.
Collaboration is a stand-alone process that requires a specific skill set and behaviours. When done well we observe improved innovation and faster response to market conditions faster. Organisations with collaborative cultures experience higher levels of employee satisfaction and, as a result, productivity. Yet, unfortunately despite best intentions, too often we fall short of the promise of collaboration.
“The challenge is that building and managing successful cross-sector partnerships is really hard. In fact, a recent Hilton Foundation study found that fully 75 precent of cross-sector partnerships fail to meet partner expectations. Clearly, if cross-sector collaboration is going to fulfil its potential in solving the challenges of the 21st century, organisations—large and small—need to do a better job of it. While scholars such as Michael Porter and Howard Buffett have brilliantly articulated why working across sectors is so important, there is a lack of practical information, tools, and insights on how to build and manage cross-sector collaboration.”
In considering the “Art of Collaboration”, here are some of our top tips for helping your collaborations be more beneficial and successful. We hope you find these useful.
1. Collaborate with a Shared Purpose/Agenda
Before starting it’s critical to agree your “why”. Not all situations are suited to collaboration, so it’s important to agree that “collaboration” is the strategic approach that will support the desired outcomes and steer us towards a solution.
All those involved need to agree why they are together and work collectively to develop an agreed shared purpose or agenda. This takes investment of time and energy up front, before we start working together. The challenge and opportunity is ensuring all are prepared to invest this time and effort, which requires leadership sponsorship. The value created through this work is often difficult to quantify and only apparent further down the road.
2. Take a Strengths-Based Approach
Agreeing and understanding our why helps us identify who to invite to the partnership. Everyone has a role and responsibility – there are no ”passengers” on the journey. Real collaboration relies on an understanding that, collectively, we are better than when we’re working alone.
True collaborative magic starts occurring when you identify what people are good at; you can set them up for success by pairing roles and responsibilities that suit their strengths.
Collaboration makes possible futures we cannot achieve alone; it makes complex problems - from inequality to climate change - more possible to address.
3. Build Trust Relationships
High trust relationships are fundamental to getting together and delivering collaboration successful. Working to a shared purpose, taking a strength-based approach we found that “competitive” behaviours reduced and a rapid increase in the level of trust within the group. You must be conscious where you are introducing competitive tensions or hints of competitive tensions.
In “The Neuroscience of Trust”, [NJ1] the authors suggest some useful behaviours to foster trust:
4. Agree Shared Outcomes/Goals, Incentives and Measures
To work together effectively, we need to define the key missions of impact - this helps align everyone right from the start and leads to more effective collaboration through your journey together. Maintain a visual focus and reminder by adding the shared outcomes/goals to your daily management tools so people remember what is to be done and what’s at stake.
Ensure all partners have the mandate and are empowered to deliver against their agreed individual roles and responsibilities. Share resources equitably and support collective progress. Build organic mentoring relationships through trusted relationships that ensure individual and corporate capability is developed throughout the journey. Use common tools and methods, towards developing a shared language that crosses sectors and disciplines and is understood by all in the joint venture.
Take time to agree what success will look like and how each partner will be supported in delivering towards that vision. Be open to reviewing and revising this vision if the context and wider environment changes. We recommend, you use a variety of tools and techniques that integrate numbers (KPIs), stories and visual representations.
Taking a shared approach to outcomes, incentives and measures reduces duplication and waste, supports consistency across the partnership, helps with comparability of information and allows us to build a shared understanding of what works and why. It’s then easier to identify what needs to change, why and when. And, taking a shared approach will lead to closer collaboration and enables a process of working out the solution in an agile, adaptive way, together.
All this needs to be undergirded by collaborative governance structures and independent backbone capability for the collaborative venture.
5. Build Rituals and Rhythms that are Context and Culturally Sensitive
Sustaining a collaborative venture can be tough. In complex system environments there are very few areas that we can control – one that we can control is our rituals, so being intentional about them becomes important for the wellbeing of the partnership effort. Build your own Customs or Tikanga to start and end each meeting, and agree how you will work together – some guidelines, policies or “kawa” that you are all agreed on will be needed.
Take time to pause and welcome everyone at the beginning of each session together. For example, in New Zealand, starting our gatherings with a karakia or a blessing for the joint collaboration and whakawhanaungatanga are important.
“Whakawhanaungatanga” is literally translated as the process of “establishing relationships, relating to others” or metaphorically it is about connecting at both a physical and spiritual level. The process of whakawhanaungatanga is designed to create kinship and connection and build trust, which are all fundamental to collaboration. We often use the Māori pipeha as a form of introduction – this indigenous approach establishes identity and heritage and our places of origin, which reminds us of our individual humanity and collective connectedness. Whakawhanaungatanga humanises the experience of collaboration whilst building trust, connection and empathy for others.
“Ka mua, Ka Muri - Walking backwards into the future”
Take to time to share stories and build an understanding of all partners’ histories. One of the insights that we learned very early in our various collaborations was that taking the time to understand the stories of the people and places brings deeper connections and understanding of what matters.
Ultimately, the rituals and rhythms need to be context and culturally sensitive, built on an understanding of place and origin.
6. Collaborative Leadership
Collaborative leaders support safe, open spaces where diverse perspectives can be heard.
In our experience and backed by the research, diversity and inclusion boosts innovation and financial results – delivering better outcomes. Part of what makes people, organisations, regions and communities so interesting is the fact that we are all different. These differences when harnessed and channelled appropriately, can lead to insight and opportunity not previously seen.
"Diverse and inclusive cultures are providing companies with a competitive edge over their peers.” This quote summaries conclusions from The Wall Street Journal’s first corporate ranking that examined diversity and inclusion among S&P 500 companies. The Journal’s researchers’ work joins an ever-growing list of studies by economists, demographers, and research firms confirming that socially diverse groups are more innovative and productive than homogeneous groups.”
In a regional context, a diverse membership in your collaboration, that has cross-sector reach and involves key stakeholder groups, is highly recommended. The best type of collaborations included public sector, private sector, NGO, Iwi and local community stakeholders (e.g. educational organisations, regional economic development agencies etc.).
In “Better Connected Services for Kiwis”, writing in a public sector context, the authors identified three clear leadership roles in any collaboration venture:
In our experience, collaborative leaders provide top-down commitment and create bottom-up engagement through empowering leaders across the system. They are authentic and model servant leadership.
More often than not we see the “entrepreneurs” rise as the first movers and shakers towards a collaborative venture. Passionate advocates who see a different way of working, one that harnesses a wider set of resources than is visible or available to a non-collaborative way of thinking. We observe it is their courage and tenacity that brings the support across the system and together they drive a new collaborative movement.
I believe that collaborative initiatives shouldn't be pilots, they should be corporate initiatives. These efforts can certainly take time but if the organisation makes the decision that collaboration is the direction they want to go down then that’s it. No giving up and no turning back. Moving forward, organisations cannot succeed without connecting their employees and their information. Making collaboration work isn’t an option it’s THE option.
In our next and final article, we will explore the benefits of collaboration before wrapping the four-part series up. The opportunities are endless – localised responses across the regions of Aotearoa are a great place to start.
If you are on a strategic collaboration and partnership journey – do get in touch, let’s talk – we’d welcome the opportunity to serve you in your context.
No silver bullets, just proven and tested frameworks and approaches.
Until next time, kei runga noa atu. He waka eke noa.
Nazanin Jenkin is a Persian Kiwi - a Persian by descent and a diaspora by circumstance. She lives in New Zealand; along with her husband of thirty years and two surviving, adult children.