Blog: Britany Affolter-Caine

Talk is easy. Putting weight behind your words is another matter. Take it from Dr. Britany Affolter-Caine, a half-marathoner and director of Intern In Michigan, an initiative to attract and retain college graduates through internship opportunities. Britany discusses how Michigan's educational, economic, and business stakeholders have moved past the chatting stage to actively join together in collaboration.

Post 3 - Playing in the Sandbox: Facing the Challenges of Collaboration

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.