Collaboration is More Effective When it is Structured

Charmaine Hammond explains why collaboration is more than just “teamwork.”

We live and work in a time when association executives are required to do more with less much faster, while building capacity and creating a bigger or more meaningful impact.

Wow! It is tiring just thinking about it, let alone actually living through it.

The work of association executives is so vitally important to the communities, residents and clients they serve. Now, more than ever, it’s time to put the unity into community.

When you mention “collaboration” in an organizational or association setting, more often than not, people will associate the term with words like “teamwork,” “cooperation” and “networking.” But after working with hundreds of associations and non-profit organizations, I have seen that true organizational collaboration is more than that — it’s not just about working together. Collaboration is about finding the alignment or synergy where the collaborators can produce a better outcome than they could have working separately. Think of it as being structured, purpose-driven and often including collaborators from other organizations, stakeholder groups or businesses. Collaboration is also working together to develop or create something new in support of a specific shared vision, community need or request. The key point here is that it is not through individual organizational effort that something new (e.g., a collaborative solution) is created, it is the combined efforts and shared values that hold the shared vision together.

Think of these collaborative relationships as structures that include processes (responsibilities, roles and framework), systems (policies, processes, templates and systems to guide the activities of the collaboration) and interaction (communication, problem-solving). The collaboration’s mission/purpose is outlined by the structure of how it is set up, and will be best served where there are also values, purpose/mission statement for the collaboration and a commitment (such as an Agreement to Collaborate or a Partnering Agreement).

So, if collaboration is so great and can help association executives, what gets in the way?

This list is long and includes:

  • Past experience – previous collaborations that went sideways and continue to haunt you;
  • Lack of time or other resources to build the relationships, manage the collaboration, deal with the issues and needs that arise;
  • Competition for funding often creates an environment of silos or solo-organization work;
  • Choosing the wrong partners to collaborate with;
  • Not having a collaboration agreement in place.

These are just a few of many factors that get in the way of collaboration.

Association executives who are embracing a collaborative leadership approach to organizational management will be well served in creating effective and sustainable collaborations. Collaborative leadership is rooted in respect, trust and commitment. It requires leaders to let go of “control” and some of their pre-determined agendas and move away from a hierarchical approach (traditional top-down management). In doing so, there is more opportunity to be creative, learn from mistakes and engage people and partners to think, plan and collaborate. 

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