The Need for Collaborative Capacity

thinking and results mindset - disappointment

Increasingly, leaders and managers are looking to collaborative methods for dealing with contentious policy issues. When making a first attempt, they may well recognize that success takes a lot more than bringing people together to talk. They know they need guidance.

The solution is often to call on a professional mediator or facilitator to design and run the process. That’s great for practitioners, but is it the only step necessary to get good results? Simply put, no.

Even with the best mediators, these methods won’t be fully successful unless the convening organizations build their own collaborative capacity. Buying know-how from an external consultant is a start, but letting that knowledge walk out the door after a project is done can undermine initial success.

Building that capacity can be hard because collaboration requires a distinctive attitude about decision-making and how to deal with conflict. New skills have to be learned, but, more important, a collaborative mindset has to be internalized.

This need was driven home to me some years ago when I had a chance to observe a series of meetings intended to improve working relationships among long-time adversaries. A group of cooperating public agencies convened the process to develop a new strategy on community health.

They wanted to approach the task by working collaboratively with a coalition of community activists. The intent was to improve understanding and build collaboration for future programs as well as for the immediate purpose of defining a strategy.

Relations between these groups had often been tense and antagonistic in the past, but both sides showed a lot of interest in a more collaborative approach. Constant fighting over funding priorities and health standards wasn’t leading anywhere. Collaboration seemed the way to go. The problem was that the organizational cultures of these groups had never put a high value on such a process, and few of them had much experience with it.

As a result, the participants tried to work collaboratively while operating under non-collaborative assumptions. The conveners hired an experienced facilitator, a colleague of mine, with a strong background in conflict resolution, but his role prior to the meeting was limited to advising the conveners. Much of this advice, however, was filtered through a more adversarial mindset.

It was no surprise, then, that during the meeting both sides fell back on a familiar pattern of talking past each other. Agency leaders presented their collaborative intentions and principles but made very limited efforts to engage the other participants in an exploration of new ideas. Many of their comments were defensive, aimed at identifying all the constraints that limited their ability to act.

The community leaders, for their part, played offense, though in a restrained way. They made their case for immediate action much as they had done before in traditional public hearings, media events and legislative lobbying. During discussions, they brought out their continuing frustration with agency inaction but showed little interest in making new proposals on how to build an effective partnership.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the reactions were also familiar. The agencies were satisfied. Staff congratulated each other and thanked the facilitator for a job well done. They were obviously relieved to get through a potentially confrontational session in an orderly and, from their perspective, productive manner.

The community groups had the opposite reaction – frustration that yet another meeting had produced no results. They heard commitments to principles but not to action. The relationship between agencies and communities remained stuck where it had always been.

Collaboration requires a set of skills and a mindset that differ sharply from those of advocacy and bureaucratic routine. The capacity to collaborate has to be developed carefully over time, just as the skills of negotiating, advocacy, litigation and lobbying take time to master.

Building collaborative capacity is difficult because it involves challenging long-held assumptions about how to achieve real-world results. People who have been effective through use of technical expertise, top-down decision-making, advocacy or political influence often find it hard to switch to unfamiliar collaborative methods. That’s completely understandable. Using a new process to deal with conflict can feel untrustworthy, impractical and risky.

However, building collaborative capacity doesn’t mean applying this approach to the exclusion of other methods. It means understanding how and when it is appropriate to use the collaborative model. That takes skill and experience. Collaboration can’t be achieved through a statement of intention and a change of vocabulary.


6 Responses to “ The Need for Collaborative Capacity ”

  1. Excellent article John. When you say “Collaboration requires a set of skills and a mindset that differ sharply…”. Makes me ask – what can organizations do to make it easy and safe for their staff to practice developing those skills?

  2. Hi John,

    Thanks for the great post. I think as a descriptive matter you hit the proverbial nail on the head. Perhaps in some future posts you can explore a couple of dilemmas this poses. For example, how the very mindset that we might hope to change, to allow productive working relations with other stakeholders, may itself inhibit seeing the value in (and paying for) developing the capacity in the first instance. The investments in training and organizational change would be substantial, I would think. Also, can we hope that someday we will see, in practice, what looks like a generational shift in attitudes towards collaboration and collective activity in general? I would love to hear your thoughts on those and other issues.


  3. Thanks, Ben –

    That’s the key question – how to change organizational culture to be supportive and rewarding of practice in developing the skills. I’m gathering material on this for the next post on this subject. One area has to be the recognition-incentive system for staff. A lot depends on the criteria for performance reviews and also on the leadership style and tone set by managers.There are many ideas about changing the organizational culture that I can review, but I also wanted to follow that up with real world examples. Let me know if you run across any case studies – especially in government agencies. There are many examples of change projects in private business, but most of what I see in the public sector are the mandated changes from broad policy shifts – like reinventing government or the current gov 2.0 trend – or collaboration itself.

    I’ll be trying to sketch out the range of possibilities over the next month or so.

    Thanks for coming by.


  4. Thank you, Jeff –

    Those are interesting questions – and I’ll be writing about them soon, as I mention in my reply to Ben Ziegler’s comment. Getting past the entrenched mindset does pose a lot of problems. If the top leadership just doesn’t get it, then it’s hard to initiate a larger shift, but it’s also possible for change to start incrementally at lower levels, working from the ground up. But at some point you have to get beyond isolated examples of effective collaborative practice, and that means solid support from top leadership. I read a fair amount in the change management literature, and most of the books and major articles mention that two-thirds of all change projects fail. There are lots of great ideas and systems/processes to effect organizational change, but actually getting the job done is a different matter. No clear pathway, I’m afraid.

    On the generational shift, I’m not so sure. In my experience, it takes a while to see which traits stay with a younger generation as it matures.

    Hey, Jeff, these are huge issues! How about a guest post to share your ideas on some of this? It will definitely take some crowd thinking to make progress.


  5. Very insightful article. I am on the board of directors of the Early Learning Coalition of Flagler/Volusia in Florida. The Coalition has recently banded together with several other agencies in our area to create one-stop shopping. For example if someone needs information about the food stamps program and has ended up at the Coalition, instead of turning them away to another building across town, the staff at the Coalition has the pamphlets on hand to answer the person’s question or has the phone number handy to get that info for them. No one is turned away frustrated and confused with bureaucracy. This required much collaborative work and negotiation amongst the agencies as many of these agencies are not otherwise linked to each other. A good example of the concepts of your article at work, don’t you think?

    Sandy Upchurch
    Mediation Counsel
    Upchurch Watson White and Max Mediation Group

  6. Thank you, Sandy –

    That’s a great example. It reminds me of the examples of collaborative cases discussed in Linden’s Working Across Boundaries. A write-up of the Coalition’s experience would be very helpful, and I’d be glad to mention it here.

    Thanks for your comment.