Common-Sense Tips for Good Collaboration

It’s the Little Things

One of the foundations of a successful collaboration is the ability to establish, nurture, and maintain mutual trust. It sounds simple, but how is it really done?

In reviewing the hundreds of collaborations we’ve studied or helped to develop, there are three very common-sense practices that distinguish strong, high-trust partnerships: 1) Show Up; 2) Do What You Say You’re Going to Do; and 3) Play Nice.

Each of these is described below, first at a “Basic” level (a baseline behavior all partners should aspire to in their partnerships) then a “Bonus” level (for those who want to take it up a notch).

1.    Show Up    

Basic: Showing up in a partnership situation is about being accessible and responsive to others in the collaborative. Chances are good the collaboration is not the only thing on your plate — it may not even be a top priority. But you agreed to it for a mission-driven reason, and if you want it to be successful, you need be there. That means participating consistently in scheduled meetings and calls, and when you are in these meetings/calls, really being present and bringing your A game.

Bonus: Collaboratives can achieve a great deal with effectively managed conference calls and online meetings. But sometimes that’s not enough — face time can make all the difference. Commit to be there in person. Have a working lunch, or do a set of rotating site visits to one another’s offices/facilities to share a better sense of your work.

This can be especially useful for cross-sector or cross-disciplinary collaborations where there are differences in language and terminology, norms and expectations, and operating environment that are not fully evident until you are there observing them. Literally showing up can help you understand the culture within which your partners’ work and make better sense of their behaviors in the collaborative. You may also find you gain new insights into the issue or project you’re working on together.

2.    Do What You Say You’re Going to Do

Basic: To be a good partner, you need to follow through, make good on your commitments, and pull your weight. This means you need to be clear — first with yourself, then with others — about what skills, resources, and efforts you’re contributing to the collaboration. Doing what you say you’re going to do is one of the most important ways you can demonstrate your value as a partner and build that essential trust. Recognize that real results mean more than promises and good intentions.

Bonus: The best partners are able to look beyond their discrete piece of the work plan and see the bigger picture. Think about how what you’re contributing to the collaboration affects the whole and how all the pieces work together to support the overall goals. Be open to learning, and watch for changes in your own organization and in the quality of the collaboration, not only for changes in the issue or project you’re working on. Good collaboration should make its mark on your organization; it’s not just an isolated or add-on activity, but a key part of achieving your mission. Pay attention to the lessons it has to teach you.

3.    Play Nice

Basic: Your grandmother was right: a little courtesy goes a long way. Collaboration is not only more effective, but a great deal more pleasant, when you check your ego at the door, be patient, say thank you, give credit where it’s due, etc. This isn’t always easy. Especially when workloads and deadlines loom, the niceties can quickly fall away. But consider this: you’ve likely entered into this collaboration to try to make the world better for your clients or other stakeholders, so you’d might as well try to do the same for yourself and your partners.

Bonus: To take this principle to the next level, you need to know when to “stop being polite…and start getting real.” No, I don’t mean reality-show real. No unnecessary drama, please! But do think about when difficult conversations or decisions may become necessary to move the collaborative’s work forward. Become skilled at contributing constructive feedback, group problem-solving, and not taking things personally. Be alert for when “making nice” may be getting in the way of making progress, and keep your eyes on the prize — always using the partnership’s goals as the touchstone.

This advice may seem self-evident, but you might be surprised at how difficult it can be to consistently live up to these principles — and how damaging it is to collaborative efforts when they are absent.

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