There are many ways that we work together -- partnerships, coalitions, alliances, networks, but there is something more to collaboration. Most relationships are transactional arrangements — I agree to do this and you agree to do that and we share in the outcome to the percent of our input. Collaborations require a different level of commitment and are transformational for individuals and organizations
Here are four critical elements to successful collaborations:
Collaboration is built on being open to new ideas, thoughts, voices, and views. Collaborators are not married to one solution, but open to multiple solutions. They ask questions, seek input, value different perspectives and experiences, and remain flexible. By using AND more and BUT/OR less, they keep people engaged in a shared journey to an undefined destination.
Collaboration exists between individuals, not organizations. Collaborations are created by people and sustained by individuals. They can be expanded to include several people in the organizations, but it’s still people-to-people. I have watched a successful collaboration quickly disintegrate as soon as one of the key stewards stepped away. It didn't between organizations, only through relationships of people within organizations.
Collaboration is built on trust. Baroness Onora O’Neill says that individuals cannot build trust, rather they choose to be trustworthy — competent reliable, and consistent. Then others will determine if they are worthy of trust. Trust is also built on respect, candor, justice, and caring. If you’ve ever been in that initial meeting where someone has an agenda, “the” answer, and you just need to provide your name or resources, you’ve seen a collaboration in word, but not deed. Trust takes time and intimacy that only collaborators will invest.
Collaboration requires a different type of leader, one who is “others-focused." Servant-leaders are natural collaborators because they choose to serve first and lead later. Successful collaboration still requires accountability, communication, and commitment, but it’s where you begin that matters. I once heard a government official say, “[Our agency] will collaborate with any group or community.” However, his behavior said, “As long as we’re in charge and we write all the rules.” You cannot collaborate with someone who doesn’t want to.
In the end, collaboration is hard, messy, and time consuming. It demands that we be both follower and leader. It’s more than titles, deep pockets, or political connections. It begins from a spirit of caring, sharing, and being better together. Collaboration is not about who we are TO each other, but rather who we are FOR each other.