We’re an organisation that supports effective – purposeful, impactful – collaboration. It’s in our strap-line – collaboration for social change. Not for collaboration’s sake. Not so we can say we’re collaborating. Not because we’ve been told to collaborate. Collaboration should be about doing something together that no one person or organisation can do alone. We define it as “what happens when people, teams, or organisations create value by working together towards shared goals” (1).

However, in the current vogue for collaboration, especially in the many new NHS-convened partnerships, there seems to be some fuzziness about what collaboration really is. Calling something collaborative doesn’t necessarily make it so. We’re concerned that some common misconceptions in both debates about and the practice of collaboration risk undermine the important case for good collaboration in the right place at the right time. So, because we care about good collaboration, here we’re unpicking a few of the common misconceptions we’re encountering.

Collaboration means everyone does everything

One of the biggest challenges is the idea that in an environment where collaboration is being encouraged and valued, it’s regarded as the default way of working for everyone and for all things. We need a little more nuance here. Of course often collaboration is required at scale, to tackle complex challenges for example. 

However, even within these contexts, collaboration can take many forms and these forms can co-exist. Sometimes collaboration is needed between a smaller subset of partners, without the involvement of others. Sometimes a single organisation just needs to do something and can do it alone without impeding anyone else or the intended outcome, even when that outcome is shared with others. Sometimes action by a single organisation is necessary in a collaborative context. (See more about different forms and features of collaboration here). 

When building collaborations, we should think harder about who adds value where, and be more flexible about when and with whom we collaborate. And we should foster environments where large scale collaboration can sit alongside other forms of collaboration and other routes to better outcomes. (This spectrum (2) can help.)

Representation equals collaboration

Having a diverse set of partners around the table does not necessarily mean you are collaborating effectively. All too often, people who have been ‘invited in’ are unable to contribute fully because the conversation isn’t welcoming to them – perhaps it’s in a jargon they don’t regularly use, based on experiences they don’t identify with, or laced with assumptions they don’t share. Their silence can make it seem like they don’t have much to offer, but in reality it’s more often that those doing the inviting have not done enough to make it possible for the invited to contribute. Truly integrating new people, new voices, new perspectives, should make the collaboration look, feel and be different than it was before they were there. 

Everyone is equal

Building on this, power is a necessary force for good and certain power dynamics will positively influence collaboration. These positive expressions of power include the ‘power to’ act, ‘power with’ others to act, and ‘power within’. Unfortunately, the inequalities in structural power – including access to financial, knowledge and other sources of power as well as positional power – between different partners are often ignored or glossed over. Sometimes this is by design: to create a sense of inclusion and the impression everyone has an equal seat at the table, or to avoid conflict. However this can create a fantasy that everyone has equal influence and agency, while ignoring the implicit and explicit imbalances and inequities, often manifesting as ‘power over’. Many of these consistently show up in our work because they are pervasive across society and so we expect to encounter them: for example patriarchy, ageism and white privilege. For collaboration to be effective, we need to be able to talk about where power lies, how it plays out, and how power dynamics (and behaviours, governance, and so on) need to change to make space for everyone to genuinely contribute in ways that make sense for them. 

Governance equals board meetings

Especially in the design of new NHS partnerships, we are finding the approach to board membership, decision making and financial oversight to be somewhat simplistic (though not simple!). Usually with the best intentions in mind, everyone is invited to every meeting, spending precious time and resource in rooms where they feel being seen is important, but where – as a local government CEO said to me this week – they feel “more a job title than a leader”. Or, as we heard in a recent senior leader coaching session, ‘structure trumps culture’ every time.  At a recent Health and Care Partnership development session I ran, everyone agreed they wanted more time talking about challenging issues together, working through them, finding new solutions. Less time hearing updates on work that’s already well developed and rubber stamping decisions already made. So in order to collaborate well, let’s design ‘governance’ that enables people to really add value and bring a different perspective, and which leads to different outcomes. Sometimes this won’t be governance at all in the traditional sense, but places of exploration, discovery, sensemaking and creativity. (This can then be followed up with actions and more formal governance to guide it).

Collaboration feels harmonious

There is sometimes a warm and fluffy air around the idea of collaboration, probably related to it being about working together, including people, helping each other. And this can be how it feels on the surface too – people agree with each other even when they don’t actually agree – because it’s easier, because trust hasn’t been built, power dynamics haven’t been surfaced, because in fact there is no real space for discussion. In reality collaboration is about getting different perspectives onto the table, listening, working through disagreement and conflict and managing to stay in relationship with one another. We should be honest that working towards agreement can be difficult (though worthwhile).

Collaboration is always about gain 

Building on this, we often encounter the assumption that collaboration is a win/win for everyone involved. Yes, collaboration done well and in the right context should lead to a better outcome. But along the way, it involves compromise and sometimes a sense of loss. It might be about a loss of power and control, for example over staff or organisational resources. It might be about reprioritising. It might be about leaving behind old ways of working, professional identities, structures, behaviours that have served people well until now. Ultimately, gains should become achievable, but they will likely involve giving things up along the way.

Collaboration doesn’t require leadership

Especially in our work with HCPs, we’ve noticed how hard it can sometimes be to generate change and action in a collaborative partnership context. If something has been framed as a ‘partnership of equals’, who can guide the work of the group? Who can ask others to take action? Let’s be clear that leadership is still important in order for groups to make progress, and role clarity too. Where there is a chair or convenor, they have an important role to play in building the conditions for collaboration described above and guiding groups towards agreement or action. However, leadership in a collaborative context is also about acting beyond the boundaries of technical authority – rather than simply utilising structural power. This can involve building influence and authority through relationships, trust, behaviours and actions, facilitating shared sense-making, mobilising others towards a shared aim. It can be about nurturing leadership and adaptive capacity in the wider system. And it requires deep self-awareness and capacity to learn and change. (More here on this leadership shift).

Conclusion

We think that as collaboration becomes increasingly embedded in how public services work, we need more honesty about when collaboration is working and when it isn’t, more nuance in how we think about when different kinds of collaborations are most helpful, and more challenge about when things really are, and when they aren’t, collaborative.

We also need to invest in building the skills to support and develop effective collaboration, such as skilled facilitation, listening, shared learning, working through conflict and collaborative leadership, and better understanding of the core foundations – like trusting relationships, collaborative behaviours and infrastructure. It requires a real effort to collaborate effectively and not just default to business as usual. So perhaps that’s the final point we should conclude with. If it feels easy, it’s probably not that deep. 

Collaborate specialises in supporting people to collaborate effectively. We are currently working with health and care partnerships, ICSs and ICBs and local authorities, supporting board development, cross-sector collaboration, collaboration with communities and collaborative leadership (and more!) If you are interested in how we could help you, please get in touch with [email protected].

And we’d love to hear what you’re learning from the collaborations you’re part of. What would you add to this list?


(1) A Guide to Collaboration

(2) The Collaboration Spectrum Revisited (Tamarack Institute)

(3)  Lisa VeneKlasen and Valeries Miller  A New Weave of Power (2002)