Collaboration involves close cooperation, clear shared goals, and a structured system of discussion and action to achieve them. Collaborative methods are useful for everything from group projects at school to community initiatives involving several organizations. Whether you’re trying to form a collaboration between two groups or trying to get an individual member to pull his weight, there are many established ways to resolve conflict and achieve results.
Participating in a Collaboration
Understand the exact goal and timeline. The purpose of the collaboration should be obvious to all participants. Even if you are simply working on a school assignment or other short term goal, make sure you know the exact scope of the project. Are you committed to work weekends? Does everyone understand the specific work required?
Help delegate tasks. Rather than trying to do everything, it is best to divide and conquer. Let everyone find his or her strength and work therein to contribute to the common goal. If you feel overwhelmed or think someone else could use your help, speak up.
Assigning each member more general roles such as “researcher” or “meeting facilitator” makes specific task delegation quicker and less arbitrary.
Let everyone participate in discussion. Stop and listen if you find you talk more than most other participants. Consider other ideas before responding automatically. Collaboration thrives when each member recognizes the value of each other member’s participation.
If some members are talking too much, adjust the discussion system. A small group can give each person speaking time in clockwise order. A large group can limit people to a certain number of minutes spoken per statement, or a certain number of statements made per meeting.
To encourage shy members to speak up, ask them for input on a subject he or she is knowledgeable about or interested in.
Assume good faith. Collaborative work proceeds most effectively in an atmosphere of trust. If you think someone is not acting in the group’s best interest, you should try to discuss the reasons behind their actions non-judgementally. If you point a finger mistakenly, the spirit of collaboration can easily turn sour.
Discuss problems openly, not behind a team mate’s back.
Suggest ways to communicate. Collaborators should have opportunities to exchange ideas and information between meetings. Use online wikis, email discussions, or document sharing services to keep members up to date. Meet as a group for the occasional relaxed gathering as well. You’ll work better together if you know each other better.
Hold members accountable and exchange feedback. Request that everyone meet as a group to discuss ways you can improve. Have regular short-term milestones and discuss how to meet them if you fall behind. For longer term collaborations, check in regularly to see if everyone is happy with progress toward the eventual goal.
Try to use fact-based metrics to monitor progress. Don’t just ask whether a member did any research, check to see how many pages of notes they took or which sources they found.
If a group member isn’t completing their work, try to discuss the underlying causes together. See Dealing with Issues for specific situations.
Seek consensus whenever possible. Disagreements are common in any group effort. When conflicts arise, seek consensus from all members on a decision. If you can’t reach consensus and need to move forward, at least make sure disagreeing members accept that the group has made a reasonable effort to compromise. If you leave a member upset, it will make further collaboration much harder.
Don’t burn bridges. Even if there are serious disagreements between collaborators, try to keep your emotions reigned in and forgive people who argue with you.
Well timed use of humor can be great for defusing a situation. Use self-deprecating humor or inoffensive jokes only, and don’t offend someone by joking around when they’re seriously upset.
Dealing with Issues as a Group
Discuss conflicts openly. The nature of collaboration involves people with different priorities working together. Issues will arise, and you should discuss them honestly instead of keeping them in the dark.
Make it clear that conflict resolution isn’t about determining who’s right or wrong. Keep the discussion focused on how best to adjust the process or action in question to remove the conflict and move the collaboration forward.
If you see a member develop signs of apathy or hostility, ask them in private what caused the change. Discuss the cause at the next meeting if it is related to the collaboration.
Don’t try to resolve every difference. The goal of the collaboration is to achieve a goal, not to instill every member with the same viewpoint. You should discuss these differences, but sometimes you’ll need to agree that the conflicts aren’t going away and choose a compromise or an alternative path forward.
Address underlying causes of low participation. If a member is barely attending meetings or not fulfilling the assigned role, find out why and fix it:
Ask the member if there are any issues with other members or the collaboration process so you can discuss them openly.
If the member is a representative from another organization, make sure that organization isn’t overworking them. Remind his boss that a certain level of commitment was expected, and ask for the member’s work duties in writing. If the member simply refuses to participate or doesn’t have the qualifications necessary, find a replacement. This risks offense, but is crucial for the collaboration to be a success.
Resolve arguments over customs, language, and style choices. If members are used to certain matters being handled in a different way, or have different definitions of a term, set aside time to discuss and resolve these. Put the definition of controversial terms in writing.
Adjust the language of your charter or mission statement to a wording everyone can agree on.
Improve boring or ineffective meetings. Research how to run an effective meeting, and share your results with the facilitator or meeting convener. Make an effort to enhance trust and engagement among members. Even small gestures such as bringing refreshments to a meeting can make members more engaged.
If meetings are running slowly due to an unskilled facilitator, select a new one everyone trusts, and who has the skill to manage the discussion without offending anyone.
Deal with manipulative and argumentative members. There are many ways to address this issue before resorting to an attempt to remove them from the team, which can cause bad blood.
Controlling or manipulative behavior could be caused by fear. If the members are representing another organization, they may be worried about it losing its autonomy. Try to discover the underlying issue and discuss it with the collaboration — or, if its a personal issue, ask them to deal with it on their own time.
If a member withholds a conflict of interest or doesn’t speak up when they oppose a decision, use meeting time to discuss each person’s perspective in turn.
Use a more structured discussion system to ensure argumentative members don’t dominate the meeting.
Reduce arguments over goals or strategies. Decide on clear goals and methods you can put into writing to reduce confusion. If members are still arguing over written goals, spend additional time tweaking them.
This may signal a desire for concrete accomplishments, rather than an actual disagreement over end goals. Try agreeing on specific results and attainable, short term strategies in line with your charter.
Manage pressure from member organizations. If the leadership of member organizations is pressuring your collaboration for quick action, remind them that the collaboration has its own authority. Planning is a necessary step in collaborative efforts.
Bring in a mediator for serious issues. Sometimes, you should collectively select a third party mediator. The mediator will facilitate one or two meetings to resolve the conflict, and should be replaced if he or she becomes personally involved. Use a mediator in the following situations: When a group leader is directly involved in the conflict.
When there is disagreement over whether or not a conflict exists.
When cultural differences are involved and a mediator who understands both perspectives is required.
When impartiality is essential, such as when conflicts of interest arise.
If the group is poor at conflict resolution. Consider a mediator who can train the group in conflict resolution rather than requesting one each time a problem arises.
Forming a Collaboration
Choose the right groups. You can collaborate with people from non profit organizations, businesses, the public sector, or individuals, but research them first. Discuss openly whether the group can commit to the type of collaboration you envision.
If you are looking for a financial partner as well, don’t invite a financially struggling organization, or a government organization during a period of spending cuts.
If a group or individual is notorious for poor work relations, trust issues, or backstabbing, steer clear.
Establish a clear purpose. Make sure all groups involved understand why the collaboration should be formed and the exact goals it will have. Have each group commit to a level of involvement before you begin.
Determine a timeline for the collaboration. You’ll quickly run into problems if one group expected a few meetings and the other assumed a year long project.
Make expectations clear. Similarly, the organizations involved should know how many people and how much time is expected of them, and to what extent leadership will be involved.
Choose a purpose members can commit to. The collaboration should focus on the overlapping goals between all members, not one organization’s mission statement.
Involve the right individuals. Find people who have relevant experience and enough credibility and trust to carry weight in their home organization. Don’t bring on unqualified people just because they volunteer or are your personal friend.
Don’t bloat the collaboration with too many members. The more there are, the slower it will go, so only pick enough to achieve your purpose and deal with any specialized issues that may come up.
If the goal involves broad organizational changes for the member groups, you need leadership from each group involved.
Include a legal advisor if you plan on fundraising as a collaboration.
Consider bringing on additional people from outside the core organizations if necessary. A member of the school board, city government, or business sector may be able to provide insight that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
Make each member’s role clear. Does everyone have equal decision making power? Does one person provide expert advice in a specialized area, and is that person a full member as well? Let each person know how much time is expected of them in terms of meetings attended and outside work done. Also discuss the process by which new members are accepted and existing members are removed from the collaboration.
Write a collaboration charter. Don’t dive into action right away; you’ll save time and increase effectiveness by first establishing the nature of the collaboration in writing. Do this in discussion at your first meeting. Include the following elements:
Mission and purpose. These should have already been established, but you may need to spend time discussing the details or wording. Include a timeline and milestone goals.
Leadership and decision making process. These are extremely important elements. Everyone must agree on who has the leadership role(s) and what exact powers those include. Are decisions made by consensus (discussion until total agreement) or some other system?
Values and assumptions. If a member organization has a “do not cross” line or assumes a particular path of action will be followed, now is the time to formalize these. Try to identify risky scenarios for each group and discuss what to do if one arises.
Ethics policy. If a conflict of interest arises, how should the collaboration resolve that issue? Whom can the collaboration enter into financial relationships with? Does each member organization’s policies apply to the collaboration’s actions, and if not, how will you resolve the discrepancies?
Maintain the collaborative environment. Congratulations, you’ve got your collaboration up and running. It’s still each member’s job, and the facilitator’s job in particular, to make sure the collaboration stays healthy.
Use your charter as a guide in discussions and conflicts. Discuss possible changes to the charter if your goals or timeline changes.
Construct an atmosphere of trust. If personal issues arise, or some people aren’t being heard, modify the discussion process so every person has an opportunity to contribute and to discuss conflicts openly.
Establish systems for providing feedback and holding members accountable for their role.
Communicate frequently. Record all decisions made and notify absent members. Provide opportunities for members to talk in more relaxed, informal environments as well as at meetings.
Don’t rush. Collaboration often doesn’t seem to move as fast as an individual project, but planning is vital to keep everyone on board.
Divide up the work so no one feels overwhelmed.
When you disagree, do not get violent or angry.
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Sources and Citations
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