Collaboration sounds like a great way to achieve organizational goals
when resources are limited or going it alone is not an option, but it is
very hard work every step of the way. The process of collaborating
challenges organizations and individuals in a multitude of ways, not
least of which is the balancing of competing interests.
In my last blog, I outlined five basic elements of successful
collaboration: participation and engagement; developing common purposes,
mission and vision; leadership; linking mechanisms; and dispute
resolution mechanisms. Each must be in place to facilitate the doing of
collaboration, but the form they take and level of attention paid to
each varies depending on the stage of collaboration in its life cycle.
For example, the time spent on soliciting participation and true
engagement along with the development of a common purpose for the
collaborative venture is much greater in the early stages, while the
type of leadership exhibited evolves from inspirational at the early
stages to strategic and shared in the middle to later stages. Linking
and dispute resolution mechanisms may initially be flexible, but evolve
to be more formalized over time and experience. As noted before,
however, there is never a greater risk for failure than in the early
stages of collaboration where challenges are greatest and experience is
The greatest challenges come from perceived threats of autonomy,
identity, competition, and value. What does it mean to share a project
with another organization? What will my stakeholders think of our
collaboration with these new partners, and how will they see the
benefits? What will we have to give up, and is it worth it? Will staff
continue to discern differences between us and partners? And the
questions go on.
In my research of colleges and universities that collaborated to promote
new programs, courses, or even new campuses, there was a big difference
in the relative ease of collaborating when the collaborative venture
created something wholly new versus when each was asked to give
something up to share a collective resource.
For example, a group of five colleges in close proximity to each other
all have a hard time continuing to support their individual German
language programs. The outcome is likely to be that they all will have
to shutter these programs except for one. For the greater benefit of the
community, the presidents decide to collaborate by pooling their
resources and creating a common German program. Faculty members are less
thrilled because over the course of this collaborative venture, they
will no longer be able to keep their full-time positions on their own
campuses – it is a loss for them. Surviving the early stages, the
faculty members discover over time that they find the sharing of a
greater number of students from other campuses to be exciting, and the
collegial support across the institutions is an added benefit. They begin
to promote and become engaged in the collaborative venture and are
better equipped to handle the changes and challenges they face along the
To use a playground analogy, it is much easier for us to play in the
sandbox with others and build a big castle together when we each come
with a full set of tools than it is when we each come with only a few
tools and have to share a shovel and bucket between us. When
organizations and individuals are asked to give something up, it is so
much harder for us to collaborate even when the end result is a big,
beautiful sand castle.
But like the faculty, time paves the way with experience and the
development of trust with our partners to forge an interest of the group.
So in the sandbox, we make small talk with the
other kids, we show off our skills at making turrets and moats, we have
a laugh at ourselves for being a mess, and we begin to trust that
the other isn't going to make off with our coveted shovel. We have
experience throughout the effort arguing over the placement of a tower
and the dragon, who will place the flag at the top, and who gets credit
for the overall design with our parents so that as each new dispute
arises, we are more skilled at resolving them on our own.
So what do we do, in addition to developing and maintaining the five
elements outlined above and in the last blog, in the early stages
when we find ourselves outside our comfort zone and unsure whether we
want to give something up or how to communicate our effort with our key
stakeholders? We keep our eyes on the prize, recognize this isn't easy,
prepare ourselves for the onslaught of messy details and daily
challenges to our sense of identity and purpose, open up to consider new
and different ways of solving problems and reaching objectives,
establish a healthy distance from crises that threaten to break the
effort, and maintain a boundless sense of humor.
It's the same thing our parents and experience taught us long ago in the sandbox.
It has taken organizations and people in the Metro Detroit community,
as well as across the state, a long time to merely talk about
collaborating. This dialogue and openness to working across
organizations set in motion the development and launch of several
collaborative endeavors targeting some of our biggest problems. This
achievement, however, is only the beginning, signaling the long, hard
road to actually doing collaboration – a difficult and risky venture
for all types of efforts and organizations.
In the doing, we can learn from successful inter-organizational
collaborations working at varying life cycle stages. My research, based
on higher education organizations and informed by the organizational
literature, identified five basic elements that are common across
collaborative ventures: engagement and participation; developing common
purposes, mission and vision; leadership; linking mechanisms; and
dispute resolutions. This first three are behaviors, while the remaining
two are mechanisms. A deeper look into each of these will help to
provide a better understanding of the complexities associated with collaboration.
It is only a first step when organizations decide to collaborate. The
act of doing collaboration is done by individuals. Rank and file
administrators and staff need to decide that it is important
enough to invest their personal resources and engage the collaborative
process as change champions. These individuals must work not only within
their own organizations, but also with their external counterparts.
Common to these individuals is the difficult balancing act between
loyalty to their own organizations and the additional dedication to
collaboration that offers potential opportunities to support
organizational objectives. The bottom line is that people make
collaboration happen, but at a great deal of personal risk both within
and outside their organizations.
Usually organizations are on the same page in terms of achieving a
particular objective when they come to collaboration, but this is not a
done deal once the contract is signed. Partners must develop a common
purpose, mission and vision for their collaboration as its own endeavor.
Finding common ground, unfortunately, is limited because there will
always be competing interests or values. Only patience, time, and
experience enable greater congruencies and pathways to finding the
common ground. In other words, this behavior is particularly challenging
for new collaborative efforts and therefore is of critical importance.
Leadership is an important element of managing alliances, and it can
and must originate from multiple levels in an organization. Positional
leaders (e.g., presidents, CEOs, VPs) set the direction of an
organization to collaborate, and the rank and file leaders (e.g.,
directors, managers, coordinators) enact collaborative activities –
both are essential to the overall success of a collaborative effort.
These leaders also exhibit several common characteristics – ability to
build support and consent across partners, and high levels of
self-monitoring, which is the ability to fit into multiple situations
and environments as needed. In other words, collaborative leaders have
to be chameleon coalition builders.
The glue for collaborating is the same as the glue for families and
organizations – personal relationships. And the sharing of information
and trust is critical to building and maintaining relationships. To
facilitate the flow of information and conveyance of trust, many
collaborative endeavors develop linking mechanisms.
Linking mechanisms can include an informal ad hoc team of change agents charged with doing the collaboration across the member partners to a formal,
institutionalized separate entity that serves all the members for the
exclusive purpose of facilitating collaboration. Regardless of the type,
collaboration succeeds when there is some form of mechanism that links
partners and promotes and supports the collaborative endeavor.
Finally, collaborations demand a mechanism for resolving disputes.
Conflict is a universal reality for organizations and individuals
engaged in collaboration. Disputes will regularly arise because tension
is constant between partners as the values and objectives of each
partner compete for attention and resource allocations. Successful
collaborations find mechanisms – both formal and informal – for
resolving these issues. These include the more institutionalized method
of outlining a process within a collaborative contract to relying on
individuals to share information as transparently as possible to
communicate the reasons and purpose behind decisions and actions as a
foundation to finding the win-win.
These five elements – engagement and participation; developing common
purposes, missions, and visions; leadership; linking mechanisms; and
dispute resolution mechanisms – are ingredients to successful
collaboration. They are the behaviors and mechanisms that enable us to
recommit ourselves to collaboration beyond the initial agreement to
partner up, and lead us to achieving together what we cannot do alone.
And yes, collaboration does sound a lot like marriage, for which it
shares many similar principles for success. It also shares a similar
The bottom line is that it is not enough to talk about collaboration – we
must also recognize the work in doing collaboration.
Recently I was asked what was my biggest lesson learned over the past
year, and I responded that it was my surprise at how much closer we in
Michigan are to truly collaborating. In past blogs, (writers) were
calling for leaders and organizations to consider collaboration, to
seriously talk about regionalism, and to align and leverage the many
assets across independent organizations for a common goal – to
transform southeast Michigan and the state as a whole. And then this
dialogue took root and our esteemed organizations and their leaders
began to initiate collaborative ventures to address the problems of
economic development, research, education, and talent retention.
Intern In Michigan falls into the latter category and involves a large
and ever-expanding network of collaborators across Detroit and Michigan.
Everywhere our team goes, we hear people's excitement and willingness
to participate. It gives us all a tangible satisfaction to have a
program to address a common problem, and an opportunity to work outside
the lines of our individual organizations for a greater good – for the
possibility that we could collectively make a difference.
We realize that we cannot work in isolation, and we recognize the
contributions of other efforts to launch internship tools to serve
students and Michigan. We operate with the understanding that so many
organizations and individuals have been working towards the same
objective – to retain and attract talent – all of whom should be
welcomed into a collective effort. In the development of a smart
resource for connecting talent and employers through internships and an
interest for ease of use for users, we are actively seeking engagement
of organizations across the state to utilize a single database and
matching tool. The win-win is that each participating organization will
receive recognition as an individual organization promoting internships
and talent. As one might imagine, much of our time and effort is devoted
to developing relationships and building collaboration across the
The bottom line is that never before have leading organizations been
willing to consider, discuss and initiate collaboration as a means of
transforming Detroit and the state – a critical first step in doing
collaboration and realizing transformational change. The implication,
however, is that there is much hard work to come in doing collaboration.
In other words, saying it ain't doing it.
For example, earlier this year I decided to run a half-marathon. It
would be my first, and it took much time and lots of thinking to
determine whether or not this should be something I invested time and
effort into doing. Once the decision was made, my friends congratulated
me, I got excited, and I wrote up a lofty training plan. Weeks went by
and I did not execute that plan, but felt confident that given my background as an athlete and coach, I could skate through it. My husband, an
experienced marathoner, challenged me (okay, bugged me) about not being
serious about achieving my goal. Finally, I started seriously running.
Some of these runs were euphoric while others were humbling (to say the
I found that regularly I had to recommit myself to my goal –
it wasn't enough to have made the commitment when I registered for the
race, but to make the decision to run a half-marathon every time I got
out of my comfort zone or it interfered with my other plans. I found out
that saying it ain't doing it.
This is true of all inter-organizational collaborations, including
Intern In Michigan, where we struggle nearly daily to recommit ourselves
to the collaborative process that challenges our identity, leadership,
expertise, and purpose.
It is true that people would not engage in collaboration unless they have
no other options. The reasons for this barrier relate to the incredible
investments of limited resources (e.g., time, money, autonomy) and the
relative risk incurred. Inter-organizational collaborations are high risk
joint ventures where the failure rate is estimated to be between 30 and
There is an entire body of research out there that looks at why
organizations collaborate and what the positive and negative impacts are
of collaboration. There is less known about the how to collaborate – a
process-based inquiry that is challenging to track and study; but it is
the how that can provide organizations with a road map through an
uncomfortable, challenging, and anxiety-laden process for which most
organizations have no prior experience.
Utilizing the blogs of others (e.g., Kurt Metzger, Roger Gullickson,
Kyle Caldwell) who laid the foundation for a collective dialogue about
collaboration as a regional strategy for addressing the challenges that
we face, I will lay out five basic ingredients to the collaborative
process that are common across successful inter-organizational
collaborations: engagement and participation; development of common
purposes, mission, and vision; leadership; linking mechanisms; and
dispute resolution mechanisms.
In the next blog, we will look at these ingredients. The third blog will
look at fitting it all together and developing a takeaway. It is my intention to illuminate the difficulties and challenges inherent in actually doing inter-organizational collaboration and provide greater understanding of the five
basic elementsthat are common across successful collaborations. These
are certainly not the only five, but provide a start to our immersion in