Good collaboration doesn’t just happen

The Collective Impact model is a valuable guide for any cross sector group with system changing or “needle moving” aspirations. Tamarack Institute’s recent addition of the “Collective Impact 3.0” model, incorporates learning and stretches the model in a helpful direction. But it’s just a model.

In addition to models that can guide the framing and approach to complex issues, successful groups also need to pay attention to the fundamentals, including proactive, intentional development of collaboration skills and practices. Factors such as strategic learning and collaboration are underlying factors for many of the conditions in these models to be successful. Elevating collaboration practices can help groups anticipate and move through the eventual challenges of relationships and agreement.

Five Conditions of Collective Impact 1 Collective Impact 3.0 2
Common Agenda
Mutually Reinforcing Activities
Continuous Communication
Shared Measures
Backbone Services
Shared Aspiration
High Leverage Relationships
Authentic Community Engagement
Strategic Learning
Containers for Change
Movement Building
Collaboration Practices and Culture

Here are a few of the mindsets and practices that I have found to be important for effective groups:

Commit to working through disagreement from the beginning

Collaboration does not mean there is never disagreement or conflict or competition. What it does mean, is that we can conflict about our ideas, and still go for a beer. That we don’t take our toys and leave the sandbox when things are not going our way. And that we see differences as a valuable asset for our shared outcome and agenda, not as a threat to it. Things that can support this commitment are: a shared sense of the urgency of the problem, understanding that collaboration is essential to address it, naming and welcoming different interests and perspectives and external facilitation of group process. Some collaboratives have offered group facilitation training to all members as a way of strengthening commitment and skills for working with differences and disagreement. 

Develop and use group agreements or simple rules at every single meeting

There is something grounding and stabilizing about the repetition of our shared principles or how we want to be together. Especially when our focus is dealing with complexity and uncertainty. Group agreements are often focused on norms like “show up on time” or “be prepared.” They can also focus on behaviours like “listen to understand,” or “speak to each other respectfully.” Simple Rules 3 go one step further and define the conditions that will guide the groups aspirational culture. Reading these at the start of every meeting is a reminder of what we strive to be together. Simple Rules are always verbs, for example: “Be Bold,” “Ask Hard Questions,” “Honour and Encourage our Differences.”

Put relationship and trust building on the agenda

We all have experiences with groups that fell apart because of interpersonal dynamics, or our own challenges in dealing with difficult or different people. I look back on my experience in the early years working with Transition Victoria and the tension between members who wanted to get to know each other personally and socially before they could move into the work, and others like myself who were more focused on the work and building relationships that way. I was frustrated by the time required at meetings for socializing and what I saw as “touchy feely” exercises. And, I also understood that this was not just about me and my way of working. Put trust building on your agenda and decide together what it will look like for your group. Meeting over food, in different places or at a pub or café, is one simple way to break the ice.

Create structures that encourage self-responsibility and shared responsibility

Not everyone needs to be at every meeting. Not everyone needs to be part of every decision. And, groups also need to find a way (through continuous communication) to keep people informed as the initiative continually evolves. There is nothing more frustrating than having to repeat a whole conversation for someone who missed the last meeting. Don’t do it. Make personal responsibility your number one principle or agreement, and provide platforms for communicating between meetings.

Think about what is the best “fit for function” for different tasks, and encourage different ways of organizing to get the work done. Identify the roles that are needed to support your early development work and share the load. Using a collaboration assessment tool is one way to introduce some of these structures for discussion in your group.

There is always more and there is always room to dig deeper:

Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, Five Key Lessons on Collaboration on-collaboration.pdf

Collaboration: A Handbook from the Fund for Our Economic Future,

1 Kania, J. and Kramer, M. 2011. Collective Impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review.

2 Cabaj, M and Weaver, L, 2017, Collective Impact 3.0: an evolving framework for community change

3 Human Systems Dynamics Institute,

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