Collaboration: getting beyond the magical thinking

13 Feb 2013

There is an increasing awareness amongst corporates, government department and NGOs that to make progress on the toughest challenges we face, we have to work with each other. Real change on complex issues requires people from different sectors, different functions, different cultures and diverse geographies to be part of the solution. A government department looking to offer more citizen-centred services needs to work with other departments, as well as the NGO sector, to achieve its goal. NGOs need to find new ways of working with each other if they are going to better serve communities. And business won’t find the answers to the complex challenges of sustainability, corporate responsibility and innovation within the four walls of their organisation. Little wonder, then, that there is so much talk of collaboration as an almost magical answer to our problems1.

In our work with hundreds of leaders in the business, government and NGO sectors, we have seen time and again the allure of the collaborative venture. It promises so much: better outcomes for clients, reform that sticks, innovation, better policy and lower costs. “If we just work together,” the thinking goes, “we can create or implement something that eludes us when working alone.”

Sadly, this rarely happens2. Collaboration, as many who have ‘been there and done that’ know, is difficult work. This is because collaboration is not about just working together, it’s about co-creation. And co-creation requires a different way of working and different skills. It’s more challenging. It’s also more time-consuming.

Because it is difficult, we believe that possibly the most common mistake made by collaborators is to see it as a panacea. So we say: don’t embark on collaborative project unless it’s absolutely necessary. If similar outcomes can be achieved by just co-operating, or better, by contracting, then that is the easier path to take (although it doesn’t sound as sexy). It’s only when you cannot get to the answer on your own that you need to collaborate.

Our recent experience with a government department provides a good example of the types of challenges that can emerge in the most well-meaning collaborative project. The department is trying to implement a complex reform with implications for both (a) the way it delivers services and (b) the relationship it has with other sectors. To its credit, it has realised that, beyond the vision, it needs help to actively create this future world. But when it started to try to collaborate outside its four walls the ‘magic’ disappeared and the ‘trolls’ arrived. Many of us know this story.

In the fairy tale of the Three Billy Goats Gruff, there is little grass left for the goats to eat on their side of the valley. On the other side of the valley the grass looks decidedly greener. Unfortunately the goats have to cross a bridge with a troll underneath—a troll that likes to eat goats. Similarly, for organisations seeking to get to the greener pastures by using the bridge of collaboration they also encounter a troll. Well actually they encounter three trolls: the trolls of control, competition and commitment.

Social Leadership Australia’s model of challenges in collaboration

The Troll of Control

Collaborating requires a way of working where some of the control and power we have no longer applies. For example, it can be hard for government when collaborating with the community sector to genuinely enter a creative space and let go of the ‘master-servant’ relationship they may hold.

In a process Social Leadership Australia facilitated between two organisations recently, the usually dominant organisation continuously sought separate spaces to have the ‘real conversations’. Why? Because speaking in real terms about what was happening would have given away information (= power) and allowed the other party to see that the dominant organisation didn’t have all the answers. When the usually dominant organisation was able to let go of the need to control the process, however, both parties were able to start working together and to understand their challenges and opportunities as something they shared.

The Troll of Competition

‘Competition’ is often seen as an ugly word in Australian contexts. It can be difficult for parties who are seeking to collaborate to admit that, in many ways, they are also competing: competing for attention, competing for control or competing for a bigger slice of the gains. So competition lives under the bridge and doesn’t see the light of day until the inevitable happens: both parties realise that power and benefits are not going to be equally shared.

Collaboration is often mistaken as a process where gains and losses will be equal and shared. It’s also a very Australian hope. As long as the troll of competition lies in the shadows it is hard to work with. It can pop up unexpectedly and derail otherwise useful processes.

The Troll of Commitment

It’s only half way across the bridge that people often realise that they didn’t really put enough resources and thinking into getting all the way across. When they encounter the trolls of competition and control they soon find out just how committed they and their organisation are to the collaboration.

The space created by our clear mutual commitment is what we would call the ‘holding environment’. It’s a zone of relative ‘safety’ that makes it possible to do difficult work together. When we meet the troll of commitment, this is often where parties leave the process.

Taking on the trolls

Unfortunately the result of not finding a way to take on these trolls is only too familiar to so many of us. We see token consultations, re-centralising of power, or restructures. This is the equivalent of falling off the bridge. But—just as in the fairy tale—the trolls can be taken on. The good news is that it’s the skills of the collaborators involved which makes the biggest difference to the outcome—not the grand vision or perfect strategy. This is good news because skills can be learned, whereas we know that visions and ‘perfect’ strategies can only get us so far.

A recently released study by American academics Rosemary O’Leary and Catherine Gerard of over 300 US Senior Executive Service members3 supports what we at Social Leadership Australia have also discovered. It found that strategic leadership, strategic management and technical skills matter, but they are not as important as individual attributes, interpersonal skills and group process skills for the successful collaborator.

At Social Leadership Australia we take this thinking further. We have identified the three most important skills as ‘owning’ and working with rank’, ‘understanding role’, and ‘hearing the “No”’.

Owning and working with rank

The differences in power between us are called ‘rank’. In any human context there are differences in rank but they are often suppressed in collaborative efforts. Denying rank between us doesn’t mean it goes away—it just irritates. This is a particularly difficult area for government to own well. It can become the elephant in the room.

When one of our clients was able to own up that actually some of the decisions to be made in a recent collaborative venture were not negotiable, and that they would be making those decisions using their rank, the other collaborators, while initially annoyed, were relieved: this is what everyone felt anyway but didn’t want to talk about. So owning and working with rank is vital.

Understanding Role

In collaborative efforts, the parties at the table are placed in a position where they have to play two different roles. The first is to represent their own stakeholders. The second is as a collaborator amongst the group. This is a difficult balancing act. It requires clarity about needs of the two roles and a good working understanding of the difference between them. An open discussion in the group about these roles is a necessary ingredient for success. It also requires compassion from the collaborative group: any real progress at the collaborative table will mean a group member needs to explain and manage their own stakeholders, and manage some of the change and loss they, in turn, may be required to undergo.

Hearing the “No.”

With a bit of luck in your collaborative efforts you should be able to create a space that is ‘tight’ enough to keep everyone in the heat of collaborating but ‘loose’ enough to be creative. If you are even luckier—and skilled—you will be able to bring forward the voices and ideas that are not normally heard. We call this the “No” voice. Collaboration, if it doesn’t fall off the bridge because of the trolls, can often get stuck in the cult of “Yes,” where everyone agrees and seeks consensus. What is lost, then, is the wisdom of the “No.”

This is where the creativity lies. The art and skill required, particularly from the role of authority, is to be able to hear and use the “No” but not get stuck or derailed by it. It can be a difficult voice to deal with, particularly when everyone wants to just move on.

These are the most effective in conquering the trolls. If you can focus on them you have something to do in building your skills … rather than just hoping for a magical outcome.


[1] Letting go of control: the art of sustainable partnerships, Jo Confino, Guardian Professional, 25 Jan 2013

[2] ‘A new UK report by New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) and Impetus Trust has found many charities are not prepared for the challenges that accompany partnerships resulting in collaborations failing, draining resources and potentially damaging a charity’s reputation.’ Charities Need Better Collaboration For Impact, ProBono Australia 2013

[3] Collaboration Across Boundaries: Insights and Tips from Federal Senior Executives. IBM Center For The Business of Government, 2012

Geoff Aigner
Author, educator, consultant and Director of Social Leadership Australia, Geoff 's first book, Leadership Beyond Good Intentions: What It Takes To Really Make A Difference, was published by Allen & Unwin in 2011. His second book, The Australian Leadership Paradox: What It Takes To Lead In The Lucky Country, co-authored with Liz Skelton, was also published by Allen & Unwin in 2013. As Director of Social Leadership Australia, Geoff is responsible for providing strategic direction for the centre in its mission to create better leadership for a better Australia.

Social Leadership Australia
Social Leadership Australia is the leadership centre at The Benevolent Society, Australia’s first charity. The Benevolent Society is a not-for-profit and non-religious organisation which has helped people, families and communities achieve positive change for 200 years. Social Leadership Australia creates better leadership for a better Australia. We develop leadership capability with purpose, we work with organisations and communities to tackle the big issues and we create and share new thinking that makes people want to lead well.



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