In collaboration, it's the first step that matters the most!
The Four C's of collaboration lie at the heart of my project because they lie at the heart of effective collaboration for public agencies.
Before you start thinking about what kind of collaboration you want, you need to ask two really critical questions that, answered well, will determine which direction you're going to head off in because, as you know, the first step in any journey is the most important!
The Four C's of Collaboration
In my experience, there are about four different levels (or degrees or standards or approaches) to collaborating. Each level requires a different focus and a different quantum of effort. Each level needs to be structured differently but most importantly, each level is predicated on producing a different outcome!
From Communication through to Collective Impact, the four levels of collaboration make different demands on us and our institutions because they are intended to produce different results. The higher levels aim for systems change, the lower levels for improved service delivery.
If you aim too high and don't set things up well you burn people out. If you aim too low you frustrate them. Get the level right and collaboration is a joy. Get it wrong and it can be a disaster.
It's a bit like getting ready for a party: you don't want to turn up to a mosh pit in your best frock with a bottle of champagne any more than you want to turn up to a gala event with torn jeans and safety bins in your ears!
So, what are the two questions to ask first?
Picking the right approach is critical because it determines how you structure your efforts; who you bring in; what you tell and ask of them and, of course; the resources that are going to be required (time, money and the most important of all, your energy/mojo/life force).
QUESTION 1: Are we trying to create something new or are we trying to improve on what we've already got?
This question is fundamental because it determines not only how you will approach and organize but also who you wish to work with and approach. As you can see in the 4C's model, the higher levels of collaboration are focused on system change while the lower levels are focussed on efficiency.
It's really important to recognize that both outcomes are not only valid but essential. Doing more with less is an extraordinarily important part of improving public outcomes. What efficiency does not do is make changes to the system itself. If that's your goal, you need to look at the higher levels of collaboration.
Question 2: Where are the points of overlap between us?
I suspect you, like me, have seen some extraordinarily inefficient efforts trying to answer this question (if it was even asked). The problem is that this question is often posed after the collaboration is launched. This is putting the cart before the horse because knowing what you are working on together is the foundation of effective collaboration. How can you create a team if you don't know the outcome before you start? It's like creating a sports team and then choosing the sport!
The problem is that we sometimes confuse strategic width with strategic depth. We can agree on a broad agenda, but to actually work together we need very specific deliverable outcomes. Helping people identify these points of strategic overlap is a big part of my job really because without it, your collaboration will remain at best a litany of pledges and at worst a mess of overlapping, under-resourced promises and blame-shifting.
Given your experience working with others, you can probably see how answering these two questions in the (very) early stages of any collaborative effort (and then revisiting them regularly) might make a difference to both your experience of working with others and also the effectiveness of your efforts!
As I mentioned, I'm going to be talking about these two fundamental questions and how to go about answering them in a series of three short Masterclasses over the next few weeks because I reckon that, getting these two things straightened out early can really change the trajectory of the work we do together. I'll share a bit about some of the collaborations I've seen and worked on where this really worked, and a few where it really didn't.
With any luck we'll be able to distinguish where you can ensure that the first step you take in any future collaboration is heading in the right direction, and, for those projects you are already involved in, how you can start asking these questions now.
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