Do you collaborate? When I ask people that, the answer is typically yes. When I ask how they collaborate, some of the most common responses are that they make referrals to other agencies, share information, see each other regularly at community meetings. Maybe they are partnering with another organization to implement a project or expand the scope of one of their programs. These are definitely good things, but are they really collaboration?

The “Collaboration Spectrum” that the Tamarack Institute has developed shows the continuum of ways in which organizations interact, with collaboration at the high end of that continuum.

The Collaboration Spectrum (from least to greatest)

1.     Compete – competition for clients, resources, partners, public attention

2.     Co-exist – no systematic connection between agencies

3.     Communicate – inter-agency information sharing (e.g., networking)

4.     Cooperate – as needed; often informal; interaction on discrete activities or projects

5.     Coordinate – organizations systematically adjust and align work with each other for greater outcomes

6.     Collaborate – longer term interaction based on shared mission, goals; shared decision-makers and resources

7.     Integrate – fully integrated programs, planning, funding

Collaboration goes well beyond sharing information, making referrals or even interacting on specific activities. It requires parties to come together on equal terms to develop a shared vision and goals, and to share decision-making and resources.

Where on the spectrum do your efforts typically fall? If yours is like most agencies, there are probably elements of competing, co-existing, communicating and cooperating in how you function. If you’re lucky (or, more likely, been extremely intentional about this), you are coordinating your programs and services with those of other organizations. It’s rare to see interactions reach the level of collaboration or integration.

And that’s a huge shame, because real collaboration can enable bigger goals and greater impact than is possible through the work of any single agency. So what stops us? What gets in the way of collaboration?

Based on my experience, there are three fundamental challenges that get in the way of collaboration. Each of them requires an adjustment not only in how we do our work, but also in the way we think about and approach our work — they are culture shifts in how most organizations currently operate.

Three culture shifts needed for collaboration

Moving from competition to trust – Being part of a collaborative means having to give up some autonomy in decision making and being willing to share the credit. Relinquishing that control requires a deep level of trust among the partners. This is essential to building the strong relationships needed for successful collaboration, but challenging when organizations are competing for resources.

Moving from silos to systems – That competition for resources also encourages agencies to operate within silos, with every organization focused on achieving its mission and distinguishing what makes it unique. Unfortunately, functioning this way is not conducive to getting out of their silos to look at how each fits into the bigger picture — to look at problems at a systems level.

From linear to adaptive thinking – We’re programmed to think in terms of step-by-step processes; logic models and traditional planning templates encourage and support this. Linear thinking works for program-level planning, but addressing the types of complex problems that call for collaborative solutions requires adaptability and a willingness to experiment.

In future posts, I’ll look at each of these culture shifts – moving from competition to trust, from silos to systems, and from linear to adaptive thinking.