I’ve been thinking about a question that Sara Wachter-Boettcher recently posed:
Our web-team processes may be more collaborative and iterative than ever—we may be sketching, testing, adapting, and prototyping. But how often are the people who’ll live out our strategies and manage content for the long term . . . included in that process?
She offers great advice about how hands-on workshops can be much more effective than traditional training sessions. I agree that it is far better to build a solution with, not for, the people who need to own it. And as Wachter-Boettcher points out, there are about a million opportunities throughout a project to include other teams in your team’s process.
I believe that one of the most important opportunities occurs at the very outset of a project, before the teams have even agreed to work together.
This is the perfect time to stop and ask each other, “What style of collaboration is right for this project? How can we work better across teams, not just within them?”
I know that it can be awkward to ask these questions. Agencies, vendors, independent consultants, in-house teams—we all have our own jobs to do. We all have products and services that we’re responsible for delivering. I’m sure that we all have similar concerns: If I include you in my process, will we end up designing by committee? Will I be able to meet my deadlines? Will we even agree to work together?
But it’s no good to avoid these questions. Doing so invites assumptions, miscommunication, confusion, and frustration. Fortunately, there’s a better way to tackle this problem.
Nine types of collaboration
I’d like to share a tool and a process from my organization’s industry, international development. In development, well-established organizations regularly partner with smaller organizations in developing countries. Often, the goal of these partnerships is not only to implement projects that improve communities’ well-being but also to strengthen the smaller organization so it can be more effective far into the future.
This sounds great in theory, but of course it’s challenging to execute. The organizations often have different goals, expectations, cultures, and approaches. They have different strengths and weaknesses, different structures and processes.
It’s not enough just to agree to collaborate. Teams need to have a frank discussion about what type of collaboration they should pursue and what the implications of this decision might be.
I’ve adapted the following grid from Douglas Champion, David Kiel, and Jean McLendon’s chapter in Capacity Development in Practice:
The roles toward the right have more responsibility for project results. The roles toward the top have more responsibility for teams’ professional growth.
There are pros and cons for each role. Here are some examples:
- Hands-on experts may be able to provide quick results, but their solutions might not be sustainable after the collaboration ends.
- Counselors may be able to help teams ask the right questions and explore promising options, but their advice might not lead to results.
- Partners share responsibility for results and growth, but true partnership requires high levels of commitment and flexibility from all participants.
- Teachers and coaches need knowledge and experience in adult education in order to be effective.
The collaboration needs to be practical, both in terms of affordability and feasibility. This brings us to a related consideration.
Seven elements of organizational capacity
Allan Kaplan has identified seven interrelated elements that contribute to an organization’s ability to function. I’ve taken the liberty of arranging them in a pyramid:
The elements at the top of the pyramid are visible to observers, so they tend to get the most attention. The elements at the bottom of the pyramid are invisible, which makes them easier to overlook. However, they serve as the foundation of the entire organization.
If you’re responsible for a major project—such as creating an organization’s main website, refreshing an organization’s brand, or helping an organization undertake a multiyear change initiative—it would be unwise to neglect the intangible elements that are at the base of the pyramid. Likewise, if the organization is not ready to look closely at its context, vision, strategy, and culture, then major change initiatives are not likely to succeed.
Five steps for negotiating effective roles
With these considerations in mind, Champion et al. recommend the following five steps to decide what type of collaboration is appropriate:
- Clarify the organization’s need for results and growth
- Openly discuss the current capacities of the client and consultants
- Use the collaboration grid to identify an appropriate match
- Ensure that all parties have the support they need
- Commit to the agreed-upon roles and responsibilities
This list talks about “the client” and “the consultant,” but teams can follow these steps for in-house projects as well.
Why invest in this process?
This process creates space for difficult but necessary conversations. It’s true that by following these steps, one or both parties might decide not to collaborate after all. This can be disappointing, but isn’t it better to reach this conclusion before you’ve committed to an unproductive relationship?
And if you decide that the relationship is a good match, this conversation will help the participants learn about each other’s processes and agree on an approach. That way, you and your collaborators can look for opportunities to build with, not for, so your work together will be more satisfying and productive.
Josh Tong is a content strategist and content marketer in Washington, DC. He helps colleagues create powerful content through research, strategy, and implementation.
What Style of Collaboration Is Right for Your Project? by Josh Tong is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.