Collaboration: six mistakes to avoid
Learn from others and make your collaboration work.
‘Collaboration’, broadly defined as two or more organisations working together in partnership, continues to be a hot topic in our sector.
The SVA Quarterly article in issue 6, Getting our act together explored some of the reasons for collaborating and the overall challenges faced by organisations embarking on the journey. Be it to increase impact, improve funding or reduce costs, many organisations are looking for opportunities to collaborate.
… some have been extremely successful, while others have struggled to overcome significant hurdles.
Much of SVA Consulting’s recent work has focused on helping organisations explore how collaboration could contribute to their strategy; some have been extremely successful, while others have struggled to overcome significant hurdles. This experience has revealed some of the common mistakes made by organisations when trying to collaborate. Here we share some of these lessons, to help others avoid making the same mistakes.
Mistake #1: Collaborating because it ‘seems like a good idea’
One of the first questions we ask our clients is ‘why do you want to collaborate?’ While most organisations are able to provide generic answers, few are able to provide clear, specific and measurable objectives that link with their individual strategy. For example, instead of ‘we’ll be able to leverage off each other’ to ‘we will increase the number of individuals we serve by 25% through creating a joint program targeted at unemployed youth in Port Augusta’. Certainly, an objective may not be this detailed when starting to explore a collaboration, but organisations must work towards this level of clarity.
… it is only with a crystal clear understanding of your own objectives and strategy that you will be able to see how a partnership might fill a gap…
Sometimes organisations collaborate based on assumptions or because they have a long-standing relationship, without clarity of the ‘why’. There is a real danger in this. Assuming that a partnership with another organisation will be of benefit simply because, for example, they are in a similar field or in a particular geographic region, without identifying just how it will benefit your organisation, can result in ineffective or inefficient collaborations.
The driving force behind the collaboration must be the individual organisations’ purposes and needs. In other words, you must be able to answer the following question:
How does this collaboration help my organisation to achieve its objectives?
Getting our act together highlighted three potential reasons to collaborate:
- Increasing impact
- Improving funding, or
- Reducing capital requirements or operating costs.
Of course, it is only with a crystal clear understanding of your own objectives and strategy that you will be able to see how a partnership might fill a gap, enhance your capabilities or improve your efficiency.
One of our recent engagements involved two large mental health organisations that wanted to collaborate or potentially merge. The idea was floated by two senior leaders, but the purpose of the collaboration was not defined beyond a vague idea that it may help them ‘get bigger’. It was assumed that because the two organisations provided different services in the same region, ‘collaboration’ would be of benefit, but it was not clear if or how this could increase impact, improve funding or reduce capital requirements or operating costs.
… make sure you understand what you hope to achieve, and how collaboration will help you reach your goals.
Before engaging with SVA Consulting, the organisations put substantial effort into designing a collaboration. However, they had no defined and common understanding of the value they were wanting to create. During our work with them, it quickly became apparent that the primary reason was that neither of the organisations had clarity about their own strategy.
Without a defined strategy, it was impossible to understand whether there would be value in collaborating at all, let alone what that value might be. Now, armed with an understanding of their own strategies, the organisations have a sharper vision of how the collaboration might be of value and can define specific objectives beyond ‘getting bigger’.
Before turning to collaboration, make sure you understand what you hope to achieve, and how collaboration will help you reach your goals. Invest in exploring the ‘why’ and avoid the temptation to rely on broad assumptions or motherhood statements.
Mistake #2: Ignoring the structure and processes
Conversely, some organisations become very excited about and focused on the ‘why’ but fail to sufficiently consider the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the collaboration, i.e. how they will actually work together to achieve the desired purpose.
There are many ways in which organisations can collaborate and partner. Is it a partnership at the program or organisational level? Will you be connecting existing programs or creating a new joint program? Or will this be some form of back-office integration, a learning/mentoring relationship or even a full merger?
Failure to focus on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the collaboration almost derailed this collaboration…
Different structures will require different processes, and some structures will be better suited to achieving certain outcomes. While certainly not prescriptive, one way to represent this is the spectrum in Figure 1, ranging from informal partnerships that retain organisational independence to greater levels of consolidation, culminating in a merger.
Figure 1: Structural models of collaboration sit on a spectrum (adapted from Stanford Social Innovation Review and Cultural Clashes in Non-Profit Partnerships: What’s going on and what can we do? by Amelia Kohm)
One of our non-profit clients had spent considerable time discussing ‘collaboration’ with a potential corporate partner. They had defined the overall purpose as creating long-term employment opportunities for individuals with a mental illness. However, both organisations had spent a lot of time discussing the overall objectives without defining how these would be achieved – the detailed design and structure of the collaboration.
If you do not understand what you are trying to achieve, then designing the ‘how’ is futile.
We worked with the non-profit to articulate its vision of the employment model, including how it would be structured, how it would integrate with other programs, and what role the corporate would take. When this was shared with the corporate, it was evident that they had a different idea of how the potential collaboration might actually function. With this realisation, fortunately at a relatively early stage, the organisations were able to reassess their options and design a new model that met both their needs. Failure to focus on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the collaboration almost derailed this collaboration, which would have hindered the non-profit’s ability to provide greatly needed employment opportunities to its clients.
The ‘how’ has to be explored early in the design process, as this has a significant impact on the collaboration and what benefits it will produce. Certainly, gaining clarity about the ‘how’ is inherently linked with the ‘why’ (Mistake #1). If you do not understand what you are trying to achieve, then designing the ‘how’ is futile. Similarly, defining the ‘how’ can inform the ‘why’, revealing new benefits or refining your understanding of the purpose. This can, and should, be an iterative process. Together, the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ will allow your organisation to make an informed decision about how (or whether) to proceed and increase your chances of achieving the desired outcomes.
Mistake #3: Rushing it
No matter how clearly defined your purpose, if you do not invest sufficient time in designing and implementing your collaboration, you risk complete failure or at least falling short of your potential.
Time is vital, be it for building relationships, fully exploring your options or adequately designing the collaboration model.
This can happen when organisations underestimate the time required, or when external factors, such as government reforms, impose tight timelines. Time is vital, be it for building relationships, fully exploring your options or adequately designing the collaboration model.
We recently supported a group of homelessness service providers to respond to the NSW Government’s Going Home, Staying Home reforms. The providers felt pressured to ‘collaborate’ as a result of this reform. With tight deadlines, the providers had to design the structure, governance and operation of the collaboration very quickly. This restricted the organisations’ ability to invest time in clearly articulating the purpose of the collaboration, how it would be implemented and what it would look like, as well as preventing the gradual process of building relationships. They agreed that the ‘ideal’ collaboration would be a tightly integrated model, with common assessment and transition processes, standardised policies and a shared measurement and evaluation framework.
If you find yourself rushed by external factors, be realistic about what you can achieve in the given timeframes…
However, the organisations decided that it was not possible to design and implement this collaboration in the given timeframes. As a result, the group designed a looser collaboration model, focused on sharing information and introducing some common processes. While this will be of benefit to the organisations, reducing their costs and potentially improving outcomes for clients, the collaboration fell short of the ‘ideal’ model that could have created far greater value had there been more time.
Put simply, don’t rush it. Give yourself enough time to create your collaborative effort and achieve your objectives. If you find yourself rushed by external factors, be realistic about what you can achieve in the given timeframes and look for ways to build on this down the track.
Mistake #4: Not investing sufficient resources
Establishing a collaboration can require significant resources, which means that you need to understand what it will require and prioritise accordingly. This is particularly true for large-scale partnerships. You might design an extremely impressive and impactful collaboration, but it will never get off the ground without the required resources.
The collaboration ground to a halt without the required resources.
We recently saw this with an alliance of community service organisations. The leaders were all deeply passionate about the potential for collaboration to increase their organisations’ impact. The early discussions were very promising with all leaders enthusiastic about the collaboration’s potential. However, when it came to bringing this to life it quickly became clear that only one of the organisations was willing to dedicate staff to designing and implementing the collaboration. This may have been a symptom of some of the organisations failing to fully understand the objectives and purpose of the collaboration (see Mistake #1), with the result that they had not prioritised investing the necessary resources above other activities.
This disparity created tension amongst the organisations with one feeling like it was doing all the work but only gaining some of the benefit. The collaboration ground to a halt without the required resources. Through open discussions between the leaders, resources were eventually committed, but we all had to work together to regain lost momentum and rebuild trust between the organisations. The failure to sufficiently invest upfront undermined the collaborative effort.
Being aware of this challenge is particularly important in the funding-constrained environment of the social sector.
Being aware of this challenge is particularly important in the funding-constrained environment of the social sector. For a collaboration to succeed, as with any large project, there must be a realistic understanding of what investment is required and agreement about who will provide it. The project must also be prioritised by each of the organisations. This will ensure that the required resources are dedicated to achieving the mutually beneficial objectives. In some situations, the organisations will discover that they do not have the necessary resources and may choose not to proceed or will need to seek other avenues of support.
Mistake #5: Leaving the hard conversations to the end
Most people don’t like conflict, and many don’t know how to navigate it. However, avoiding the difficult conversations will undermine the likelihood of a successful collaboration. This is certainly the case when a collaboration involves some form of loss. For example, if the collaboration involves establishing a new joint venture, parties need to address who will lead this new organisation and how it will be funded. Ignoring these issues will not make them disappear.
… difficult issues to explore, involving personal identity, loyalty and potential loss of employment.
One potential collaboration most likely fell short of its potential as a result of avoiding the hard conversations. A group of community organisations were hoping to collaborate to reduce costs, share knowledge and deliver more effective services to their clients. The organisations had explored a number of models, ranging from simple knowledge sharing forums to some form of joint venture.
However, the group had not discussed whether some or all of the organisations should merge, or whether one or more of the smaller organisations should be absorbed by the larger organisation. When one organisation (bravely) raised it as a possibility, the idea was quickly dismissed as ‘too hard’ and ‘unnecessary’.
… organisations must identify the big, tricky issues early on and address them…
These are obviously difficult issues to explore, involving personal identity, loyalty and potential loss of employment. However, by avoiding the issue the group did not explore all of the options and thus did not make a fully informed decision. This was despite the merger having great potential to meet the objectives of all the organisations and the needs of their clients. Had this conversation been held earlier, the barriers might have been overcome and greater outcomes achieved.
When contemplating collaboration, organisations must identify the big, tricky issues early on and address them, or at least understand how they may impact the process and agree a strategy for resolution. This will either allow the issues to be overcome or demonstrate that the relationship cannot move forward and save everyone time and resources.
Mistake #6: Not bringing your people on the journey
A new collaboration will almost certainly require some level of organisational change. Whenever change is involved, with the fear of loss, it is imperative to bring employees and other key stakeholders along on the journey. Without their support, if not their enthusiasm, the collaboration will not succeed.
The fear amongst employees was palpable.
We encountered this issue with one of our clients, a large organisation in the mental health sector, which was contemplating an organisation-level collaboration with a smaller service provider in another state. Our role was to facilitate discussions between the two organisations to identify what specific collaboration opportunities existed and how they could be implemented.
Upon commencement of our work, it was evident that the senior leadership teams had not effectively engaged their people. The case for the collaboration had not been made, even within senior ranks, and there was concern that the project was simply a cost-cutting exercise. The fear amongst employees was palpable. As they had not been given the opportunity to understand and explore the change, our project quickly became a platform where general dissatisfaction within the organisation was aired in an emotionally charged environment.
Organisations need to have the frank conversations about collaboration at the start of the project…
Navigating this barrier absorbed a lot of time and resources and created fatigue around the process and the project. The organisation had to take a few steps back and clearly articulate the driving forces and objectives of the project, carefully managing the change process with their people. While the employees are now more supportive and excited about the collaboration’s potential, if this issue had been addressed earlier by the organisations, significant time and energy would have been saved.
Openness by management and staff is of great importance. Organisations need to have the frank conversations about collaboration at the start of the project particularly if it is on a large scale, and ensure effective communication with stakeholders. In some cases, this is simply about granting people sufficient time to understand the reason for change and inviting them to be a part of it.
Collaborations can be hard, requiring time, money and effort. But they are also an opportunity to leverage the different strengths of organisations, achieving goals that would otherwise be out of reach. This is why it is so important to avoid making these mistakes. If you do, you will be far better positioned to create a successful collaboration and achieve your organisation’s objectives.