The problem with collaboration; and what CEOs can do about it

Michael Pain

Collaboration is one of those words that gets used a lot. It reads well in a report and sounds good in a conference speech. The glossy coating so often attached to it makes the potential of collaboration seem endless – which it can be, but also easy – which it most definitely is not!

It is true that purposeful, impactful, and sustained collaboration can make almost anything possible – not least overcoming intractable improvement and service delivery challenges. Indeed, in a highly complex world of unprecedented regulation and demands, collaboration is essential – no single CEO or major organisation has all of the answers to today’s fundamental and often intractable challenges. From cyber-security and environmental sustainability, to the wellbeing of our workforce and the cohesion of our communities, the opportunities and challenges for organisations everywhere are vast. Outward-facing and cross-functional collaboration is a must if any of us are to succeed in the current context. So why do we all too often leave collaboration to chance?

This is in part because, as CEOs, we can often fail to be disciplined enough about collaboration, or focused enough on the skills and traits that give rise to it. Most collaborative opportunities eventually fail, and they fail for these reasons:

  • We may not be prepared to rigorously prioritise the innumerable opportunities open to us for collaboration (which are more numerous than ever!)
  • We may not be committed enough to invest sufficient energy or sustained focus in realising its benefits over time
  • We may not minded to confront the fact that collaboration and competition often co-exist and we have to deal with this – not ignore potential friction and let it fester.
  • We may fail to put sufficient protocols in place early enough to secure the collaborative activity over time.

In this article I will focus on these ‘conditions’, and I will focus on the big topic of the skills and traits required in the organisation in a future article.

Failing to prioritise collaborative endeavours

The need for prioritisation is symptomatic of the times. We know we need to collaborate, just how much and with whom? This demands a hugely strategic conversation encompassing boards, executives and those on the frontline; yet we can often find ourselves treating collaborative projects like Christmas trees, with an enthusiasm for constantly adding ‘baubles’ to our organisation’s branches, but with no sense of when our growing commitments will topple us over. Therefore, there must be an approach in place to that allows us to fully embrace collaboration opportunities while ensuring we don’t over-commit. 

It is important that Chief Executives and their boards consider their vision and strategy for the organisation as the cornerstone for all collaborative endeavours, considering carefully the organisations that they need to work with to realise their ambitions. Values and ethos matter enormously too, especially for when the road of collaborative practice presents difficult choices and inevitable tension. If collaborative partnerships are to succeed, there must be a shared sense of vision and values and that each partner recognises how the partnership will help them to deliver on their strategic ambitions. This provides the platform for what behaviours scientist Francesca Gino considers to be the key elements of a successful collaborative culture: “widespread respect for colleagues’ contributions, openness to experimenting with others’ ideas, and sensitivity to how one’s actions may affect both colleagues’ work and the mission’s outcome.”

Examples of strategic partnerships that many academy trusts are currently embarking on include:

  • Partnerships with a major local employer to ensure readiness for a changing employment market
  • Partnerships with the local mental health trust to access key services and resources on behalf of pupils and staff
  • Partnerships with organisations such as Apple and Google to enhance tech provision and contribute to online safety
  • Partnerships with a local football club to engage more pupils both in physical education and wellbeing, and community projects

These priority partnerships will not be the same for all trusts.

RESOURCE: See our case study of Chiltern Learning Trust and their focus on strategic community-based partnerships

Only by screening opportunities for collaboration and partnership alongside the vision, values, and an honest assessment of ‘the potential return’ the partnership will provide to the organisation and its end users – young people, will we choose the right ones to invest time and energy in. It is also important that the partner organisation(s) feels the same way, and there is a genuine ‘win-win’, ideally in the short term and longer term for both organisations.

Failing to generate sustained commitment and focus

Secondly, it’s about commitment and focus. I often advise CEOs that any more than six or seven key strategic partnerships with other organisations is probably too many. CEOs need to be able to dedicate enough headspace, and their teams enough capacity, to making sure collaboration delivers and realises the potential that really strategic opportunities deserve.

The fact is that any strategic partnership with another organisation needs sufficient time and energy from the Chief Executive (or another senior executive leader), both to sustain the strategic purpose and to model a sense of value and investment. That’s not to say that a CEO should be involved in the day to day interactions and delivery of the partnership, but they must regularly be present to reinforce the goals, navigate the pitfalls, and demonstrate enthusiasm and energy towards the opportunities that collaboration brings. It’s also important to have an individual or division with day to day responsibility for the partnership, project leading the work, and reporting in to the CEO on delivery, impact and need. This also has the added benefit of empowering your teams to lead on partner engagement and provides a sense of team purpose and ownership.

RESOURCE: See our recent article on Project Leadership and the role of CEOs

It’s important for public sector leaders to consider that many collaborative initiatives run by governments and its agencies fail to be sustained overtime as they are often less focused on crucial elements such as collective vision, ‘win wins’, sustained leadership, and devolved ownership – and are instead much more reliant on funding streams and ministerial endorsement. These tend to be powerful and compelling initiatives for public service leaders in the short-term, but often disappear in the medium- to longer-term because of the nature of politics. The academy trust model itself is one of the few models where government did successfully create the platform for a more sustained model of collaboration, through devolving autonomy, governance and leadership, and finance. In any case, this is why, in the education system, it is those partnerships generated by trusts, schools and providers themselves that tend to sustain and generate impact over time, not government co-ordinated ones.

Failing to confront potential conflict head on

In any collaboration – especially a strategic one between organisations operating in the same sphere – there’s almost always the opportunity for conflict.  As organisations, we can find working with our peer or similar organisations useful with enormous mutual benefits and learning. This is often the case in the education sector where trusts and schools work together despite not being part of the same entity and the benefits of school to school support have been evidenced. However, the potential for the competitive and conflicting aspects undoubtedly rear their head at times and how otherwise beneficial partnerships overcome this is key. Whilst many organisations ‘dance around’ areas of conflict in the honeymoon phase of a partnership and agree to always be friends, those that stand the best chance of survival are open and clear about areas of conflict and agree protocols and expectations in those areas. This means that tensions and conflicts are openly discussed, assessed and managed; rather than bubbling under the surface.

Failing to ensure clear protocols

Finally, any collaboration must begin with clear protocols, shared understanding, and an appreciation of the remit and limitations of the project. Fundamentally, it should also be clear on the behaviours expected of all participants at all times – taking us back to values and the importance of trust. A great example of this is the work undertaken ahead of peer reviews, such as the Schools Partnership Programme led by our commercial partners at the Education Development Trust, which secures the quality of the school to school peer review process through upfront training and development for leaders involved in the process – embedding the ethos of non-judgemental feedback and constructive enquiry that underpins effective improvement collaboration. Other important protocols that cannot be overlooked include a commitment to regular (but manageable numbers of) meetings; information and data sharing as appropriate; financial commitments; the routine feedback from end-users; and a shared understanding of how the project is to be monitored and held to account. This takes an investment of time and energy, but the returns of collaboration are rarely realised without this

So good, strategic, collaboration presents huge opportunities for organisations right now – but it requires disciplined and visible leadership from the very top. Indeed, for any CEO and board presented with the opportunities, or embarking or forging a strategic partnership with another organisation, there are some headline questions to begin with:

  • Does this partnership help us to take forward our vision and strategy in a meaningful way?
  • Do the values and the ethos of the partner organisation align with our own? Is there a clear sense that this is a ‘win win’ partnership that both parties will benefit from over time?
  • Are we able to commit the time, energy and resource (including my own personal time as CEO) to sustaining momentum and delivery?
  • Are we open about the potential areas of conflict and overlap and how we will manage these so they do not impede collaboration or generate unnecessary tension?
  • Are there clear and fully agreed protocols in place around behaviours, regularity of meetings, information and data sharing, finances, and accountabilities?

Michael Pain is CEO of Forum Strategy and author of ‘Being The CEO’. Please note: Education Development Trust are commercial partners to Forum Strategy.

Our Membership Website includes a wide range of leadership development materials and resources for CEOs and COOs – including articles, videos, reports and slide packs.


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