The Tactics of Collaboration

Moving beyond platitude and exploring how to operationalize collaboration.

Understanding the tactics of collaboration can help make the unique value of working well together real. It’s important because the whole—all of us, humanity—can be greater than the sum of our parts. We often discuss collaboration in terms of its relationship to competition; competition, at its best, can make each part more valuable and more effective, but collaboration adds value to the whole by focusing on how the parts work together.

Effective collaboration depends on effective relationships between humans. If the right people are in the room, and if there is time and space for like minds and potential partners to find and engage with each other, then even the worst-designed gathering can be productive. If the right people are also talented, driven, and a bit entitled, they will make the space they need to be productive regardless of the meeting’s design. However, setting aside time and space is not the whole story. Effective collaboration also requires that all collaborators gain value from collaborating. When the value is reciprocal, other barriers become smaller and the collaboration is easier to sustain.

Now, if we think of conferences or meetings as our tools for offline collaboration, then we need better tools. Our facilitation methodologies need to evolve and professionalize to focus on the experience and needs of participants. In his paper “Creating Participatory Events,” Executive Director of Aspiration Allen Gunn describes the problem like this:

The Internet era has ushered in a broad new panorama of collaborative tools and interaction opportunities in the virtual realm. But live “offline” events such as conferences, given their unique potential for connecting like minds and catalyzing relationships, have remained relatively non-collaborative affairs, employing dichotomous formats such as “keynotes,” slideware presentations, and panels to let one or several speakers relate across a veritable moat to silent and largely passive audiences.

And here’s the part that makes event organizers nervous:

Participatory event refers to a gathering where participants shape the agenda before and during the event, instead of reading a fixed schedule beforehand and then shuffling between sessions that have been slotted weeks or months in advance. The focus in such events is placed on peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and network building instead of large group listening.

Participatory events, as Gunn describes them, are not an easier or cheaper alternative than standard meetings and conferences. In fact, they are more difficult and require completely different muscles. Participatory events require vulnerability. Engaging fully in a participatory event requires that those with status risk their social currency by engaging in conversation as equals. It also requires an experienced facilitator. Gunn writes:

If you have folks already in a common frame of analysis, there is benefit in the knowledge arbitrage that comes from surfacing differences and emergent serendipities found in the in-betweens. But if you have heterogeneous value systems, you lean more toward finding common ground and facilitating value exchange in those realms. It's a Venn diagram; you do a lot of the same things in either case, but there are approaches that vary based on the presence or absence of collective norms and shared perspectives.

For humans to work well together, we must pay attention to more than just our own self-interest. This got me thinking about a hierarchy of collaboration. By hierarchy, I mean that we can best move forward not by developing skills or becoming proficient with a specific methodology, but by advancing through stages of moral development, where we learn to weigh personal benefit against collective benefit. Here are the four stages of this development as I see them:

Stage 1: Commitment

In my experience, the first stage of any collaborative effort is to create a context for membership. Either the participants or the convener can establish this, and each member must commit to it to join. Individuals or individual organizations associate their name with the collective’s—for example, prominent organizations make public commitments of action within the Clinton Global Initiative collaborative. This public declaration essentially puts an organization’s reputation up as collateral for the commitment.

Stage 2: Partnership

Give and take defines the partnership stage—each party gives something of value and takes away something value. Formal contracts and trust built over time enable this very market-based stage of collaboration. To fund promising social enterprises, for example, impact investors must structure complex investments into a stack of capital from a range of funders, including government-sponsored loan guarantees, concessionary investment capital, grant money from foundations. In their book Impact Investing, Jed Emerson and Antony Bugg-Levine write:

To make this complex capital stack work, impact investors need to become effective at collaborating with donors and governments. But the providers of these subsidies typically focus on maximizing only public goods and social outcomes, and fail to recognize (or even find suspect) the profit an enterprise could create.

The successful impact investor can sell partnership as a route to improving the risk return calculation for everyone—each partner will get more of what they want, thanks to the dynamics of the partnership as a whole.

Stage 3: Vulnerability

Collaborators must all be vulnerable for trust to develop between them. In her talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” Brene Brown says, “Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and struggle for worthiness, but it is also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”

We must let go of the myth that sets “my” success as a precursor to “our” success. Vulnerability requires that we let go of control. No one of us can solve the problems we are facing, but few of us are integrating this reality into our work.

Stage 4: Emergence

Emergence occurs when independent and unordered parts come together to form a pattern or an identifiable whole. This is the highest stage of collaboration. The nonprofit consulting agency FSG describes “embracing emergence” essentially as an act of faith. Solutions to extremely complex problems such poverty or climate change can emerge from many groups working together to create collective impact—a framework that doesn’t prescribe explicit outputs or milestones, but instead focuses on increasing the likelihood that an unforeseen solution will emerge.

Our problems are bigger than any of us. I hear my friends and colleagues lament the state of the world. I hear in their voices exhaustion and frustration, but also isolation. We must move beyond platitude and operationalize collaboration. We must rethink our tactics, develop better tools for interaction, and summon the courage to evolve beyond competition to understand individual success as an outcome of collective success.

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  • BY Jazz Rasool

    ON November 4, 2014 03:26 PM

    Just spent 6 years researching collaborations that worked and ones that didn’t. The outcomes of collaboration best practice are highlighted at: -the article on Job with Life and: is a good manifesto/vision to start

  • BY steve wright

    ON November 6, 2014 09:30 AM

    It would be super cool and even apropos to the topic if those of you that make it to the end of the blog would let me know what you think.  I promise to respond.  Let’s have a conversation.

  • BY Joy Burkhard

    ON November 6, 2014 03:38 PM

    Hi Steve.  Thanks for covering this important topic and pointing out the complexities so well.  I formed a collaborative (National Coalition for Maternal Mental Health) of competing non-profits addressing maternal mental health on the premise we would do a few simple things which we refer to as SEA 1. SHARE what we are each working on 2. ENGAGE outside stakeholders by inviting them to coalition meetings to present on some related to mental health or supporting moms and families 3. Collectively raise AWARENESS and ADVOCATE for change (our first order of business was a national social media campaign for maternal mental health awareness month in May). It’s been both bumpy and rewarding for our participants. We all just agreed to another year together and to pay dues to support this collective work.

    One key has been outside consultation on structure and strategy planning sessions. A neutral expert on non profit collaboration.  One struggle has been capacity.  This is a group of passionate mothers who always seem to find one more hour to give for their cause.

    Thanks for the reminder to keep it up. It matters. 

    PS regarding collaborative events.  I just learned about village square and my interest is peaked.




  • BY Brad Henderson

    ON November 7, 2014 07:23 AM

    Hey Steve,
    As a fellow pie lover in his glory as we are in pumpkin pie season… thanks for pulling these elements together.  I appreciate your recognition of vulnerability as an attitude needed for trust building and for surfacing the approach of an emergence when we take on this work.  Talking about the ‘art’ of collaboration can sometimes be greeted with rolling of the eyes and so the more that can be said, written and demonstrated about the validity the better.

    I also agree that collaboration as a way to confront these real and looming problems is a powerful way to overcome the cloud of gloom around us.  We, as a society, created these wicked problems and so why wouldn’t we, (private, public and civil society actors) be implicated in resolving them.  I am constantly buoyed by having the opportunity to work in this space at this point in time.

    Re: working with emergence perspective.  Earlier this year I had a paper published by the online journal of Partnership Brokers Association,  about what this looks like as partnership practitioner.  You will notice that I borrowed heavily on FSG’s paper.

  • BY Michelle Holliday

    ON November 7, 2014 08:05 AM

    Love it!  Thank you, Steve. 

    One thought (a nuance, really): in the Commitment stage, what if partners committed to a queston, to some learning that they want to embark on together and that they can’t pursue effectively alone?  It’s something I explored recently in a blog post called Mission Questions Not Mission Statements.  Such an approach ties in with both vulnerability and emergence, and it’s likely to be more inclusive and engaging.  It’s the spirit behind the Social Lab movement.

  • BY steve wright

    ON November 7, 2014 08:18 AM

    Joy, Thank you for this excellent example. As we try to talk about this type of work it is critical that we have concrete examples.  I am also very appreciative of the bumps as well as the rewards. They come together for anything that is worthwhile, right?

    Have you had an opportunity to read about backbone organizations in collective impact work? 
    It seems like this is what you are trying to do with the National Coalition for Maternal Mental Health. Here is a good article on Backbone orgs:

    Additionally, I am a huge fan of having a Theory of Change and I have a hunch (that I am eager to verify) that if members of a coalition like yours could each come to a participatory event with a complete Theory of Change the event could focus on the intersections.  I have a very tactical understanding of what a Theory of Change is.

    1) What is the change that you intend to make
    2) What do you do every day - what activities - that you believe will contribute to creating that change.
    3) what is the theory that connects your activities to the change - why will what you do create the change?

    Thank you for contributing to the conversation.

  • BY steve wright

    ON November 7, 2014 08:58 AM

    Brad, It seems like you and I are on similar wavelengths here.  That is great to see - lends credence, no?

    I read you excellent article on complexity and partnership. I really appreciate the role of “brokering” and I think ingeneral we need to invest more in this in our sector.  UIn my previous comment I talked about backbone orgs which is a type of brokering. 

    Also in my previous comment I wrote about Theory of Change which you mention in your article.  I like to use a Theory of Change as an iterative document that can serve to stay on mission in a lean methodology process.  I find the more complicated Theory of Change processes are very useful as a process but the resulting document can be too unwieldy to operationalize and revisit and tweak over time.  This also answers the ‘art’ of collaboration idea.  I absolutely do not see it as an *art* which is why I titled this the Tactics of Collaboration. That said, I am very comfortable with using terms like faith and love in the context of our work.  Their is a reason why this work needs to be done and that is to improve our quality of life - to serve humanity.  Money is a very poor proxy for success.  Love is not.

    Thank you for your comments.

  • BY steve wright

    ON November 7, 2014 09:10 AM

    Michelle, Mission Questions is very compelling.  It is clearly better than “be # 1”. Ready your post, I think it is similar to the idea of emergence and the faith that rigorous work together will bring us to a better place.  The only nuance that I would add to your nuance is that for social sector organizations, moving away from a clear statement of the change they intend to create would be a mistake.  For example, your friend in the woods in my opinion should never let go of “eliminating the concept of waste” as a goal to focus their work. The question “What if we embraced the concept of rot and death…and also renewal?” is very powerful but I wonder if it is practical enough to structure the tactics of a business around it.

    Many thanks for the contribution!

  • BY Sara Farley

    ON November 13, 2014 11:24 AM

    Hi Steve,

    This piece is great and as a practitioner of collaborative innovation and facilitator of networks, your views are provocative. 

    I’d like to get your read on a parallel conversation going on elsewhere on the SSIR blog regarding Innovation Labs, and a piece by Amira Bliss and Nidhi Sahni. As the co-founder of the Global Knowledge Initiative, we’ve had the privilege of experimenting with a range of models, tools, and processes to kick-start collaborative innovation on problems global and wicked. 

    I’m often asked what makes this notion of an Innovation Lab new or different.  My take:  it’s not wholly different.  It’s unique as a recombinant form of social innovation.  Tools like Human Centered Design have been around for decades.  However, part of the novelty and the power of Innovation Labs rests in opening up the box of tools that underpins the innovation design processes.  By empowering the broadest set of users possible with the ability to select the tools for design, wield them on their own terms, and formulate innovations in an utterly collaborative fashion, Innovation Labs come to solutions that are uniquely co-created.

    To connect this notion of Innovation Labs to the idea of establishing the case for collaboration, I want to pick up on your points on return on investment and improving the risk-return calculation.  How Innovation Labs can help propel the thinking and measurement on methods to calculate returns to social innovation as a social process will be fascinating. How the very construct of Innovation Labs offers an investment in the social capital and the linkages necessary for systems to innovate merits thought and validation as we move forward.  So, given the emphasis on emergence, how do you propose reconciling the unknowns implicit in emergent processes with the need to articulate the value propositions of investments in processes like that of Innovation Labs ex ante of their work enabling collaborations that deliver value (as any grant application, for example, would require)?  And, what would the calculations look like after the fact to put some good numbers and methods behind the risk return calculations as you propose?

    Looking forward to hearing your ideas!

  • BY steve wright

    ON November 14, 2014 11:07 AM

    Sara, I left a long comment yesterday and maybe never hit ‘submit’?  Erg.  Trying again now.

    Many thanks for the very thoughtful comment!. It seems that your last two questions are the gist of your comments.  True?

    Given the emphasis on emergence, how do you propose reconciling the unknowns implicit in emergent processes with the need to articulate the value propositions of investments?
    What would the calculations look like after the fact to put some good numbers and methods behind the risk return calculations as you propose?

    In general, I think we over think this idea. Social enterprise is a disruptive innovation because social enterprises are required to provide value beyond profit. I like to say that profit is “above the line” and value that rolls up to love is below the line - is the bottom line. I use the terms faith and love intentionally and rigorously.  They are great and meaningful words that should not be compartmentalized.  Love is valuable.  Love is the ledger. That does not excuse us from being rigorous in our efforts to maximize the value we are creating.  Quite the opposite.  If it is love that we are aiming for, then it is clearly really important. Feeding the hungry.  Maximizing vibrancy in our communities. Ending poverty. These things all have best practices and indexes of progress.  That is where the rigor goes.  Each domain has its measure of progress.  There is no grand unifying unit of good and their definitely is no relevant way to equate money to good, or love.  Love is valuable.  that is enough.

  • CecileRay's avatar

    BY CecileRay

    ON November 17, 2014 06:50 AM

    Really interesting thoughts, thanks. Your model Commitment—> Partnership—> Vulnerability—> Emergence is interesting and makes sense. It is a good complement to the Tuckman’s stages of group development (Form—> Storm—> Norm—> Perform), stages 2 and 3 being a little bit opposites in waves….

  • Amy Erickson's avatar

    BY Amy Erickson

    ON November 24, 2014 01:30 PM

    Thank you for this article. Having recently read Brene Brown’s “The Gifts of Imperfection,” I feel as though vulnerability is less of a tactic and more of way of being.

  • BY steve wright

    ON December 1, 2014 11:52 AM

    Cecile, thank you for the comment.  I will re-read Tuckman!

  • BY steve wright

    ON December 1, 2014 11:55 AM

    Amy, I agree.  I think of the 4 stages as developmental.  I do believe we need to actively pursue the capacity to be vulnerable and reading Brene Brown is a great way to start. smile

  • Amy Erickson's avatar

    BY Amy Erickson

    ON December 2, 2014 09:45 AM

    Thanks for your reply Steve.  I’ve been pondering Sara’s comments and will be exploring the same questions with regard to measuring the social impact on investments via social labs.

  • Deborah Proctor's avatar

    BY Deborah Proctor

    ON April 28, 2015 03:27 PM

    Let it flow.. Let it flow…

    Type A, will surely have trouble with stage 3….

    Love the concept and yes I am a type A

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On a Mission

Featuring Ray Chambers

Ray Chambers, co-founder of the nonprofit Malaria No More, talks about his experience raising malaria awareness through partnerships and the need for effective collaboration.