Collaborations come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and sectors. The most commonly cited definition of collaboration comes from Professor Barbara Gray of Penn State from her well-discussed text Collaborating: Finding Common Ground for Multiparty Problems. Collaboration is defined 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.” Collaboration is distinct from other forms of cooperation in that collaboration is based on a “collectively articulated goal or vision.”
Simply put, “to collaborate” means, “to work with another person or group in order to achieve or do something.” In school we are made to collaborate on group projects. You may collaborate with your neighbors to clear the sidewalk of snow or successfully bring forward an issue to a local governing body. Working together—as coworkers, as friends, as organizations, as countries—maximizes assets while ensuring sustainability of a project. If everyone is collaborating around a commonly-valued issue, how can you abandon the effort? All participants in a collaboration have something important to offer, and, as the Bridges Out of Poverty Model from aha! Process Inc. states it, “once people form relationships of mutual respect, they are much less likely to abandon each other.”
In 2005, Paul Mattessich of The Amherst H. Wilder Research Foundation of Saint Paul presented on his text Collaboration: What Makes it Work. Based on a research review of collaboration, Mattessich presents 6 categories of “ingredients for successful collaboration”:
- Environment: a history of collaboration; community-legitimized collaboration participants; favorable political and social climate
- Membership: mutual respect, understanding and trust; broad representation across the community of those affected by an issue; understood self-interest in participation; ability to compromise
- Process and Structure: shared stake in process and outcomes; participation throughout an organization; flexibility; development of clear roles and policy guidelines; adaptability; appropriate pace of development
- Communications: open and frequent communication; established informal relationships and communication links
- Purpose: concrete, attainable goals and objectives; shared vision; unique purpose;
- Resources: sufficient funds, staff, materials, and time; skilled leadership
Collaboration works because it is a tool for bringing together different people with different relationships to an issue in order to address a community concern. There are limitations of collaborations—they are time-consuming, there is potential for power inequalities to derail the work, compromise can be challenging, they often work best in small groups, and without an ability to affect change, they are not useful—but if these limitations can be recognized and overcome, a collaboration can be a strong force for change.
What has been your experience with collaborations? Do you think they are an effective method for change? Are there other limitations or criteria for effective collaboration that you would want to add? How would you like to see collaboration in your own life and/or career?
Please explore these and other thoughts/questions here!