Collaborating to Understand Collaboration; A New Tool

I imagine the majority of us value collaboration. We believe that doing it increases impact, fosters innovation, and is especially called for when it comes to effecting large-scale systemic change (or transformational change). Many say collaboration is more efficient than disconnected social change or social service efforts. The expectations of many funders are that grant requests must include collaboration. It’s a norm we just accept.

Collective Impact is how we describe large-scale collaboration that aspires to resolve intractable problems like poverty, climate change, family violence, obesity and so on. It makes sense to view working together on such problems as requiring such a collaborative framework.

agree-disagree tool image

As much as we see collaboration as a desired, if not necessary community-change norm, people experience collaboration differently, have varied perspectives on what it is, what its benefits are, how successful it actually is, and how it can go wrong. While we share a common appreciation for collaboration, we have feelings and we make judgements about collaboration that may not shared with one another. In other words, each of us carries biases about collaboration to the collaborative table that are often kept hidden from one another for a variety of reasons.

I see these unshared perspectives as important undercurrents that should be brought to the surface and discussed. Over the years, I have been a member of more collaborations than I can count. I cannot recall having an in depth conversation with my colleagues about our respective views and experiences on collaboration. What we did do more times than not was identify guiding principles that we inserted into our terms of reference, but I typically found this effort to be more task-focused than being grounded in generative conversations about collaboration.

Collaboration is a personal endeavour as much as it is a professional one, and I am offering the attached tool as one way for a group to get at what individuals think and believe about collaboration and help them dialogue about their differences and then work to identify a shared understanding of what collaboration might offer them if they commit to working that way. I suggest such conversation is a necessary precursor to identifying guiding principles as well as the process design of collaborating together.

The tool is based on an Agree-Disagree Exercise. Moving through the steps outlined in its instructions can enhance the possibility of identifying a group’s own case for collaborating to resolve a significant community problem.  As is the case for all tools and exercises, this tool requires authentic participation by members of a collaborative group to have optimal value. It also requires sufficient time to undertake this engagement.

Take a look at this tool. Adapt it to accommodate your own context and group dynamics if that will help you. Once you have identified your own “case” for collaborating you can move on to the next challenge, which is how to make your case come alive in your work. That stage of your work may require another tool; I am going to think about that.

Agree-Disagree Exercises can be applied to more than collaboration. As you will see, it offers a framework that can be used to discuss Collective Impact, Community Engagement, Innovation, and on.


Let me know what you think. I am also on the prowl to improve!

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