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I have sat in numerous collectives, coalitions, and partnership-based initiatives for many years. And while I have seen the great benefits of collaboration work, I also cringed at some of the dysfunction manifested in the name of collaboration. Here are some of the few observations around collaboration that show how conflicting motives can hijack its value.
· Some collectives are not collaboration at all. Some are pseudo-collaborations when they appear in the guise of collaboration but are not. Partnerships that are by nature tactical, one-off, short-term do not have to be labeled collaboration. It is a mere partnership for a specific set of projects, initiatives, and agenda. Collaboration focuses on long-term strategic objectives that no one organization can boast to overcome or solve. For example, eradicating poverty, homelessness, etc.
· For one, when collaboration leads to co-dependencies between organizations, using collaboration partners to fill their capacity deficits and further discourage the organization from actually investing on specific organizational and technical capacity-building because they can get it ‘free’ through collaboration. It sounds pernicious, but this practice is very common. For example, the convenor will set up a research collective in the hope that the agenda, framework, and technical skills-set drawn from the group-those thing that they lack and cannot do on their own.
· When the convenor abdicates on its responsibilities to the whole group and delegates all the decision making, it makes the group more responsible than they should be. For example, a convenor who is legally responsible for setting the collaboration, having funding to administer and support it, abdicates its leadership role to the Chair, Vice Chair or certain organizations to decide on issues related to its functions.
· The role of the convenor is very tricky. The people in the group look to the convenor for guidance, inspiration, and smooth administration, as well as leadership. When there is no leader or sets of leaders in the group performing complementary functions, it begets the question: who is calling the shots here? How can the decision-makers contain risks in their decision-making?
· Supposedly the risks are shared equally by the whole group, but in fact, risks are shared by those who get to do more work for the group. Leaving some to do less while the rest of the group do more than what they bargained for. Studies show that the larger the group, slackers tend to arise and create more work for others.
· There seems to be no clarity why organizations and individuals are sitting on these groups and committees regarding their motivation and ‘what’s in it for them?” It is very rare when people get honest about it. Is it to get more funding? More prestige? Getting capacity when there is none in your organization? Is it for a good reputation? Is it because it aligns to your organizations’ purpose? Is it because you get more than you put in? Is it because it is easy to sit in without having more responsibilities? Being honest and candid about what you want out of these collaborations will give you an assessment in whether or not it is the right fit for your interests and motivations. It also gives everyone on the table an idea how these interests align with the groups’ aims.
· Simply getting what you want and offering to help is not the answer. Collaboration is not just the sum of all efforts if everyone likes what is going on. Any time, partners can pull out and say “we are not part of this,” because it happens more than you think. The self-interest is too high on the agenda to make it work for the group. Sacrificing your own organization’s self-interest for the collective common good may create a little discomfort or moderate pain as part of the equation, not a lot are prepared or have contemplated this. Ask yourself is being part of the collective enhances your ability to forge common agenda and interests or in short-term merely responding to your needs.
These and many more have become perplexing dilemmas. When everyone extols the values of collaboration, the practice of collaboration is nowhere near as impact-full and effectiveness as it should be. And everybody wonders why.
A few self-assessment questions will get you thinking about your role in the collaboration framework.
1. Have you clarified, explained, and demonstrated your motivation, interests, and organizational aims as part of the group?
2. Have you expressed the opinions, perspectives, and challenges that you face as part of the collective and understood each partner’s interests and motivations?
3. Have you benefited more than what you are intending to gain as part of the group or vice-versa ( meaning put more than what you expected to contribute?)
4. Have you contributed to advancing the collective good which you would not directly benefit as an organization but committed to doing it anyway?
Let us analyze; if you answer 4 out of 4, then it means that you understand the importance of honesty, candor, and exhibiting a certain level of vulnerability to achieve common goals, that at some point, will cause discomfort or pain to your organization. If you answer yes to 2-3 questions, you have a certain level of understanding of your role but not taking a proactive stance to the issues you are facing as part of the group. If you answer yes to 1, there is a great room to improve in your standing and perception of how collaboration works, gravitating on passivity, dependency, or confusion within your role in the group and vice versa.
Unraveling these issues is the start of empowering your position within a collaboration framework. It does not mean that you will not fail, it means that you can go back up again and revisit those thorny issues that get in the way of effective teaming up for success. The right frame of mind, expectations, and contributing attitude can set your organization up for greater collective impact.
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