Taking cross-sector collaboration beyond the sound bite

We need more collaboration between business and the civic society is a popular sound bite at high profile global gatherings. The 2015 World Economic Forum was no exception.


It is commendable that cross-sector collaboration (partnerships) features on important agendas and is recognized as a vitally important mechanism in building a sustainable and resilient world. However, it is important that business, civic and political leaders follow through on their statements and help create and nurture the environment in which collaboration can thrive. There is a vital need to build capacity for collaboration across the sectors. The leaders can commit to investment in organizations, programmes and individuals focused on delivering innovation, efficiency and excellence in multi-stakeholder collaboration. Collaboration cannot afford to slip further into the hackneyed sound bite territory that mushrooms around any good idea. Over-simplification of collaboration or the constant repetition of the ‘collaboration’ buzzword without substance and weight behind it will sap its potency to inspire action. It also does not follow that people know what successful collaboration looks like or how to deliver it well.

Collaboration is neither simple, nor easy.

Cross-sector partnerships often fall far short of expectations and many fail. A combination of deficits in partnering skills, capacity, processes, governance and infrastructures can undermine the most well-intentioned partnership. Outdated attitudes and beliefs which fail to keep up with the dynamics and demands of a multi-polar world and ‘myths’ that keep collaboration paradigms tethered to conventional thinking also hold back progress.

A common ‘myth’ is that collaboration is simple and just takes common sense. In reality, global experience shows that collaboration is quite complex. It takes a range of skills, patience, impatience, persistence, vision, rigor, courage, tenacity and imagination in those involved. For this reason, collaboration takes effort and professionalism both to establish and to nurture to productive maturity. It requires special kind of leadership and intermediation.

Partnering requires a radical change of mind-set (individual and organizational) and behavior together with a willingness to think and act in new ways, where leadership is undoubtedly and possibly the critical success factor. Conventional thinking assumes that a partnership needs a directive leader. In reality, evidence shows that collaboration requires new models of leadership and leaders with markedly different attributes to those we find in traditional, single sector environments.

Traditional models of leadership located in single sector paradigms (making cross-sector work difficult) are rooted in specific cultural traditions (making international work difficult); and can be hierarchical and directive in nature (making shared decision-making and shared accountability difficult). The kind of leadership that is needed to deliver collaboration is very different. In fact, intermediaries or partnership brokers  who take a behind-the-scenes leadership function, can be seen as embodying the kind of non-directive, facilitative leadership (‘servant leadership’) that is more suited to the challenges we face as a society. Partnership brokers support and strengthen partnerships by their understanding and skilled management of the collaboration process.

Conventional thinking suggests that collaboration requires compromise and being prepared to lose control; that agreement and consensus is essential. On the contrary, collaboration, at its best, involves sharing control and re-defining and/or re-building each sector’s key roles and responsibilities. Alignment that is built on a relish of diversity is more important than agreement and consensus.

We can also find some myths around the purpose of a partnership. Rooted in traditional development paradigms, many people believe that it is there to deliver a programme or project – that the partners just need to agree some common objectives, secure resources and put a few sound project management processes in place. Successful projects are seen as the most important outcome. In reality, partners have multiple expectations, need complementary objectives and have to be willing to understand and respect each other’s expectations. Good project management skills and other operational mechanisms are a given. Success actually depends on establishing strong working relationships between key individuals often from radically different working cultures, with different vested interests, needs and experiences. Changed mindsets, more ‘fit for purpose’ systems and innovation may be as, if not more, important than project outcomes.

Where  partnership brokers are deployed, the conventional view is that they must be detached and neutral. In reality, they are transparent about their world view and basis for working and are willing to change their views if necessary. They can get inside different perspectives, explore and exploit sectoral differences to expand the possibilities and provide practical, productive and tactful interventions.

These and other emerging ‘truths’ about collaboration need to be recognized and explored at all high profile, influential gatherings. It will shift the current dialogue from ‘we must do more collaboration’ (the saying) to ‘we must invest in building more capacity for collaboration and allocate more assets to delivering more effective partnerships’ (the doing). There is a need to support organizations such as the Partnership Brokering Association, the international professional body for those managing and developing collaboration processes and committed to promoting the understanding of, and building capacity for, partnership brokering as fundamental to achieving its vision of a more equitable and sustainable world.

Raising the level of discussion on global agendas around how to achieve innovation, efficiency and excellence in multi-stakeholder collaboration will also encourage the gathered leaders to reflect on their own capacity to understand, do and support collaboration. Can they themselves be good role models for effective cross-sector collaboration?

Done well, collaboration has the potential not only to offer options for mitigation and adaptation but also to bring in invention and innovation. Without it, the future of the planet is bleak indeed with the most vulnerable groups being affected the hardest and soonest. It does, however, need global leaders to drop the sound bite and pick up action.

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