Insights from the second of a series of conversations exploring the six foundations for effective collaboration

We recently launched our Guide to Collaboration, a short summary of what we’ve learned about how to create sustained, effective collaborations for social change. It distils our reports, frameworks, and projects into twenty informative pages introducing the six key foundations of effective collaboration.

We are now exploring each of the foundations in a series of public conversations. In the second, we discussed building collaborative behaviours, with colleagues from Essex County Council and from Hartlepower, in Hartlepool.

The starting point for our conversation is the recognition that complex social problems can’t be shifted by a single person or organisation – it’s systems that produce outcomes. To really make a difference and address problems (such as mental ill-health – as in Hartlepool) requires collaboration across the system. It is the job of all the people and organisations in that collaboration to act in such a way that it becomes easy to work together across boundaries and difference.

In our guide, we have boiled down what we and many others have learned about what it takes to make collaboration work when it comes to how people and organisations behave.

We think that these behaviours apply at all levels  – individual, organisational, system wide. And that people in powerful positions have additional responsibility for demonstrating these behaviours and for creating the culture which enables collaboration.

It’s not uncommon to hear people say that they have a good working relationship with one individual from another organisation, but to create organisational collaborations that last and aren’t dependent on just a few people working well together, we have to find ways to embed it.

Scientists tell us that we are hard-wired for cooperation, not competition, but we’ve designed our societies in ways that reward competitive behaviour: our schools and workplaces reinforce this, as do our media and culture and even our public services. We have to relearn how to behave collaboratively and we have to encourage these behaviours in our people. 

That means introducing new ways of working, that help people to behave differently, and make it easier to develop new individual and organisational habits. These can simply be setting up meetings differently so that everyone has an equal voice, giving people time for networking, and organising shared learning opportunities; or more complex, e.g: alliance commissioning, participatory budgeting and co-location.

Shammi Jalota, Head of Equalities and Partnerships at Essex County Council explained the Leading Greater Essex systems leadership development programme that has been established to build collaboration across Essex. This year-long program equips leaders to work in a complex environment and to acquire the skills and ways of working needed to work across organisational boundaries to tackle the sorts of ‘wicked’ problems requiring collaboration in Essex: devolution, levelling up, improving health and protecting the environment. Over several cohorts the programme has helped to build connections amongst the 300 graduates from 12 different organisations, and to give people permission at all levels to think about the art of the possible. 

Julian Penton from Hartlepower, a voluntary sector development agency in Hartlepool, described their system stewardship approach to creating the conditions for collaborative behaviours. Hartlepool is a relatively cohesive and stable community that despite the challenges of de-industrialisation has a great sense of pride and resilience with a willingness to contribute. Recently, their NHS has started to transition community mental health services into holistic services, co-produced with local communities. This has initiated greater collaboration, starting with understanding the different actors and relationships between sectors and across place.

Julian described the role Hartlepower are playing as system stewards in this transformation, helping to create the conditions for collaboration. This includes helping people listen and develop respect for each other, understanding each others’ contribution, and developing shared values and trust. Distributing power has been a particular focus, including decision-making and the allocation of resources, use of language and the importance of culture and identity. He ended with reflections on the role of system stewards: the importance of managing our own expectations and reactions, bringing optimism and transparency and building rapport. 

These presentations were followed by contributions from participants and interesting discussions ranging from the challenges of collaborating across difference, to how to humanise bureaucracy and incentivise collaboration. The chat really got animated around the thorny issues of staying true to one’s values and principles against the prevailing culture, and how to distribute and equalise power within systems. 

The problem of bureaucracy is endemic … it hijacks the purpose of true services.

Some of this is about who we are… as people, not just professionals. We can’t separate our personal and professional values.

Watch the video for more of this fascinating discussion!

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