Building Collaborative Communities

By Scott London

In 1995, I was commissioned by the Pew Partnership for Civic Change to study how collaboration was being used in the United States to build and strengthen community. While there are many forms of collaboration, my research focused on one type in particular—the kind carried out by individuals, groups and organizations in the public sphere. This form of collaboration can be described as a process of shared decision-making in which all the parties with a stake in a problem constructively explore their differences and develop a joint strategy for action.


This essay appears in 'On Collaboration' — a collection edited by Marie Bak Mortensen and Judith Nesbitt (London: Tate, 2012).

My report on the subject (from which the following essay has been adapted) generated a surprising amount of attention when it appeared. It was widely cited in books and publications and reprinted in several monographs. After concluding the study, I went on to observe and work with collaborative teams across America as well as study community leaders who practice collaboration as part of their community development work.

I found that collaboration can be a powerful alternative to conventional mechanisms for effecting change, such as coalitions, task forces, and commissions. Traditional groups and organizations tend to be structured vertically. Decisions are made at the top and people derive their influence and authority from their positions within the hierarchy. This is especially true in professional organizations where leadership is centralized, the work mission-driven, processes guided by procedures and statutes, and internal communication mostly confined to departments, workgroups, and committees.

Collaborative groups, by contrast, are structured horizontally. Leadership, to the extent that it exists at all, is broadly distributed. Job titles and professional affiliations fade into the background and people derive their influence from having their ears to the ground, from being well-connected in the community, and from being engaged in a multiplicity of projects. Membership usually spans silos and divisions in the community, processes are guided by norms of trust and reciprocity, and communication is more personal, more conversational, more exploratory than in formal settings.

For this reason, collaborative efforts tend to be loosely structured, highly adaptive, and inherently creative. By creating spaces where connections are made, ideas are cross-fertilized, and collective knowledge is developed, collaborative teams generate rich opportunities for innovation. When the right people are brought together in constructive ways and with the appropriate information, they are able to create powerful visions and robust strategies for change.

While collaboration is getting a lot of attention today, especially in the fields of management theory and leadership studies, there is relatively little substantive research on the subject. There is, however, a growing body of literature championing its benefits. In the following pages, I review some of the principal sources in order to better understand: What is collaboration? How does it differ from other models of cooperation? What are the prerequisites and dynamics of effective collaboration? What makes an effective collaborative leader? What are some of the chief dangers and obstacles to successful collaboration? And how do we build more collaborative communities?

 

WHAT IS COLLABORATION?

As its Latin roots com and laborare suggest, collaboration reduced to its simplest definition means "to work together." The search for a more comprehensive definition leads to a myriad of possibilities each having something to offer and none being entirely satisfactory on its own. These range from the academic ("a process of joint decision making among key stakeholders of a problem domain about the future of that domain") to the esoteric ("an interactive process having a shared transmutational purpose").

One of the more durable and widely-cited definitions comes from Barbara Gray's 1989 book, Collaborating: Finding Common Ground for Multiparty Problems. Gray describes collaboration as "a process through which parties who see different aspects of a problem can constructively explore their differences and search for solutions that go beyond their own limited vision of what is possible."

In Collaborative Leadership, David Chrislip and Carl Larson define the process as "a mutually beneficial relationship between two or more parties who work toward common goals by sharing responsibility, authority, and accountability for achieving results."

Collaboration appeals to people from across the political spectrum, not because it offers everything to everyone—as some of the advocacy literature on the subject seems to suggest—but because it deals with a process, as distinct from a program, agenda, or outcome. Collaboration requires that we look not only at the outcomes of our efforts, whatever they happen to be, but also at the process by which we arrive at those outcomes.

Collaboration might be used to resolve a neighborhood or environmental dispute. It could be a springboard for economic development in a community or region. Or it could be used to promote greater civic participation and involvement. Generally speaking, the process works best when

  • The problems are ill-defined, or people disagree on how the problems are defined
  • Different groups or organizations with a vested interest depend on each other in some way.
  • Those with a stake in a problem have yet to be identified or organized
  • Some stakeholders have more power or resources than others
  • Those with a vested interest have different levels of expertise and access to information about the issue.
  • The problems are often characterized by technical complexity and scientific uncertainty
  • Differing perspectives on the problems lead to conflict or disagreement among the stakeholders
  • Incremental or unilateral efforts to address with the issue have been ineffective
  • Existing processes for addressing the problems have proved unsuccessful

Collaborative endeavors take many forms. Some common varieties include: public-private partnerships (sometimes referred to as social partnerships)—ad hoc alliances between otherwise independent organizations that span both the public and the private sectors; future commissions, also known as search conferences, in which citizens and community leaders analyze trends, develop alternative scenarios of the future, and establish recommendations and goals for the community; interagency collaborations aimed at improving social services to children, families, and other members of a community; online networks designed to link various civic, educational, business, and governmental institutions within a community or region; school-community partnerships designed to foster greater collaboration between secondary schools and key community institutions; networks and coalitions—loosely structured alliances among groups, organizations, and citizens that share a commitment to a particular issue or place; and regional collaboratives where local governments work together to promote economic development and service delivery.

 

COLLABORATION VS. OTHER MODELS OF COOPERATION

Collaborative partnerships can be broadly grouped under two headings: those aimed at resolving conflicts and those designed to develop and advance a shared vision for the future. In both cases, the process is aimed at carefully defining and, if need be, redefining the issues involved before moving on to solutions.

Collaboration focuses on identifying a common purpose and working toward joint decisions. This distinguishes it from other forms of cooperation that may involve shared interests but are not based on a collectively-articulated goal or vision. "We cannot even begin to agree on how we should act until we have a common definition of the problem," David Mathews writes in Politics for People, "one that reflects an understanding of our own interests, the interests of others, and how the two diverge and converge."

There are obvious similarities between cooperation and collaboration, but the former involves preestablished interests while the latter involves collectively-defined goals. In What It Takes, an oft-cited 1991 monograph on interagency collaboration, Atelia Melaville and Martin Blank point out that "a collaborative strategy is called for ... where the need and intent is to change fundamentally the way services are designed and delivered." Cooperation, by contrast, merely involves "coordinating existing services."

Banding together to work for common goals is not a new idea in politics. The literature is full of examples of how community organizations—religious groups, trade unions, nonprofit groups, small businesses, civic alliances—form cooperative ventures, community interest groups, neighborhood task forces, and political coalitions. But these efforts are rarely collaborative in the strict sense. The goal is to join forces to advance a cause, which is different from collaborating to address a collective problem or develop a joint vision for the future.

 

THE PREREQUISITES FOR COLLABORATION

For collaboration to be effective, it must be democratic and inclusive. Hierarchies of any kind get in the way of sound decision-making, just as excluding some individuals or groups with a stake in the issue can derail the process. It also requires the involvement of a wide range of community leaders, such as mayors, city council members, nonprofit directors and members of the local school board.

In a series of case studies of successful collaboratives, David Chrislip and Carl Larson point out that each one "involved many participants from several sectors—for example, government, business, and community groups—as opposed to few participants predominantly from one sector." The level of participation required, however, is partly a function of what kind of collaboration is being sought. Clearly, some forms of collaboration—such as interagency partnerships—require only that the relevant stakeholders be included. Chrislip and Larson emphasize that the support of high-level, visible leaders "brought credibility to the effort and was an essential aspect of the success of the endeavor."

According to Barbara Gray, collaboration can only be meaningful if the parties involved are interdependent in some way. "Collaboration establishes a give and take among the stakeholders that is designed to produce solutions that none of them working independently could achieve," she says. In this way, they all depend on each other to produce mutually beneficial solutions.

Some questions to ask before embarking on a collaborative venture include:

  • What are the structural relationships between the parties and the possible power issues inherent in the collaborative arrangement?
  • Is there a clear understanding among all the parties of the respective goals of the other participants?
  • What form of leadership is required to facilitate the process?
  • Does the project have some form of integrating structure, such as a cross-section of steering committees, to facilitate and coordinate decision-making and implementation?
  • Will the project be more effective with a neutral, third-party mediator?
  • Should the media be involved?
  • Does the project have enough time, money, and staff support?

 

THE DYNAMICS OF COLLABORATION

The process of collaboration is rarely simple and straight-forward. It typically moves through several distinct phases, some of which can be time-consuming and fraught with challenges. Generally speaking, the process begins with an analysis of the situation and a diagnosis of the key issues involved. It moves on to a definition of the fundamental mission or desired outcome. The participants then articulate a common vision and work out a plan and a timetable for meeting their goals. It most cases, the process concludes with an assessment of the outcomes and a review of lessons learned.

Barbara Gray describes it as a three-phase process. The first phase, which she calls the prenegotiation or problem-setting phase, is often the most difficult. Six issues need to be addressed at this stage: 1) the parties must arrive at a shared definition of the problem, including how it relates to the interdependence of the various stakeholders; 2) the parties must make a commitment to collaborate; 3) other stakeholders need to be identified whose involvement may be necessary for the success of the endeavor; 4) the parties have to acknowledge and accept the legitimacy of the other participants; 5) the parties must decide what type of convener or leader can bring the parties together; and 6) the parties must determine what resources are needed for the collaboration to proceed.

During the second phase, the parties identify the interests that brought them to the table, determine how they differ from the interests of others, set directions and establish shared goals. Gray calls this the direction-setting phase. It is characterized by six essential steps: 1) establishing ground rules; 2) setting the agenda; 3) organizing subgroups, especially if the number of issues to be discussed is large or the number of stakeholders exceeds a dozen or so people; 4) undertaking a joint information search to establish and consider the essential facts of the issue involved; 5) exploring the pros and cons of various alternatives; and 6) reaching agreement and settling for a course of action.

The final step of the collaborative process is the implementation phase during which 1) participating groups or organizations deal with their constituencies; 2) parties garner the support of those who will be charged with implementing the agreement; 3) structures for implementation are established; and finally 4) the agreement is monitored and compliance is ensured.

Collaborative ventures obviously vary a great deal and not all of them can or want to follow this general framework. Much will depend on the nature of the endeavor, the number of people or parties involved, the time-frame, and the resources at hand.

 

COLLABORATIVE LEADERSHIP

The growing interest in collaboration can be seen as part of a bumpy transition away from top-down authority structures toward a new way of coordinating activities and making decisions. At their best, collaborative leaders assume the role of discussion facilitator rather than decision-maker. They put aside whatever authority, expertise, position, or influence they may have in the outside world in order to foster openness, dialogue, and deliberation within the group. The collaborative leader is one whose primary goal is to convene, energize, facilitate and sustain the process over time.

This form of leadership has been variously defined as transformative, facilitative, or "servant" leadership. In his classic 1978 book Leadership, James MacGregor Burns described transforming leadership as a process in which "one or more persons engage with each other in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality." The key to this type of leadership, he said, is the discovery of shared purpose and the interplay between motives and values.

James Svara, in his book Facilitative Leadership in Local Government, expanded on this notion, saying that collaborative leaders "stress empathetic communication, think in 'win-win' terms rather than seeing their interests in conflict with those of others, and use synergism to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts."

A number of theorists stress that one reason collaboration works as well as it does is that it empowers participants and creates a sense of ownership and "buy-in" within the group. When decisions are reached, they are the products group's own efforts. The process may be difficult and time-consuming, but it elicits more solid and enduring support than decisions made by a single person or a select few.

Collaborative leaders understand this intuitively. They move the process along by sharing inspiring visions, focusing on results, strengthening relationships, being open and inclusive, bringing out the best in others, and celebrating achievement. Collaborative leadership is not a specific set of activities. It means playing whatever role is necessary to bring about real change and lasting impact in the community. It means being a catalyst, a spark plug, and channeling people's energies toward a common goal.

 

THE LIMITATIONS OF COLLABORATION

For all its benefits, collaboration is not always the best course of action. The process is fraught with dangers and inherent limitations. It is notoriously time-consuming and is not suitable for problems that require quick and decisive action, for example. Power inequalities among the parties often thwart the process. The norms of consensus and joint decision-making sometimes require that the common good take precedence over the interests of a few. It can break down in groups that are too large. And the process is meaningless when participants lack the power to implement final decisions.

The literature is full of examples of poorly executed collaborations that failed to yield substantive results, ran out of funding, failed to garner enough interest or support from the leadership of the community, or stalled because of irreconcilable differences between stakeholders. As Barbara Gray points out, "many well-intentioned efforts to involve the public in government decisions, for example, are exercises in frustration and often exacerbate rather than improve the situation because careful attention to the process of managing differences is neglected."

Some of the circumstances under which it is best not to collaborate include: 1) when one party has unchallenged power to influence the final outcome; 2) when the conflict is rooted in deep-seated ideological differences; 3) when power is unevenly distributed; 4) when constitutional issues are involved or legal precedents are sought; and when a legitimate convener cannot be found. But when groups are aware of the limitations of the process and are able to work around them, they can do great things.

 

THE PROMISE OF COLLABORATION

Consciously or not, many of us subscribe to outmoded theories of change handed down from traditional leadership theory. We believe that influence occurs as a direct result of force exerted from one person to another. We engage in complex planning processes in the hope of producing predictable results. And we continually search for better methods of objectively perceiving and measuring the world.

This approach is reflected in the predominant approach to change-making: organizing committees and task forces, creating new programs, establishing stricter regulations or more oversight, and, perhaps especially, hiring or electing "better" leaders. But the realities of public life today are dynamic and complex and no longer lend themselves to mechanistic solutions. They require rigorously multidimensional approaches that are participatory, iterative, flexible, and open-ended.

In my research on collaboration, I have interviewed many practitioners who told me that they found their way to collaboration only after years of frustration with conventional problem-solving approaches and a gnawing sense that "there must be a better way." They stressed that traditional mechanisms for bringing about change are often exasperating, time-consuming, and ineffective.

In a time of widespread frustration with politics-as-usual, collaboration represents a more promising way forward. "What has moved so many people to take on this hard work of collaboration," write Daniel Kemmis and Matthew McKinney in Collaboration and the Ecology of Democracy, "has been the widespread perception that, in all too many cases, the existing governing framework was proving itself incapable of getting the job done. To put it bluntly, the problems that people expected the government to solve were not getting solved."

Building collaborative communities means finding new and better ways to work together. We need to create spaces where people can find each other, share ideas, and discover common ground. We need settings where people can receive support and be acknowledged as public actors. And we need contexts in which people can begin to imagine and act from a new sense of possibility.

On CollaborationThis essay appears in On Collaboration, a collection edited by Marie Bak Mortensen and Judith Nesbitt. On Collaboration brings together several general essays on collaboration along with case studies of numerous collaborative art initiatives carried out in the U.K. under the auspices of Tate. (London: Tate, December 2012).