Why Collaborative Advantage matters

This post was first published on my old ‘Pollin8or’s Blog’ site (30/Nov/2018).

Collaborative Advantage, a phrase coined by Siv Vangen and Chris Huxham in 1989, is the compelling argument for investing time and effort into partnership work. 

The Ubiquity University slide below cites a UNESCO study ranking collaborative skills as the most important for effectively addressing problems in the context of complex systems.

At the time of writing, I haven’t found an website dedicated to the promotion of generic partnership skills and the art of collaboration.  There’s plenty of organisational guidance for stakeholders on the subject, and good resources scattered among the pages of excellent things like the Participatory Learning and Action Guide but the only knowledge base for learning, exchange and improvement of the collaborative working/ partnership practices I’ve found so far is this one for charities by the NCVO.

In the meantime – here’s a set of notes based mainly on insights from Elizabeth Lank’s  excellent book ‘Collaborative Advantage’ from 2006. I’ll add elements from Paul Skinner’s 2018 book of the same title when I’ve read it. The whole page is lightly seasoned with my own experience.  

My own experience for the record – I have been developing, supporting and reflecting on partnership work since 1995 and although I didn’t have the phrase Collaborative Advantage to hand, it’s the skill-set I’ve been coaching and facilitating since 2003.  I have an Msc in Responsible Business Practice centred on Action Research taught by the Peter Reason referenced in the link – who’s major contribution to the field is in ‘collaborative inquiry’.


  1. Definition, preconditions and why Collaborative Advantage matters
  2. Preparation
  3. Structure & resource
  4. Integration
  5. Nurturing & developing
  6. Communication
  7. Learning & Skills

1. Definition

Collaborative Advantage is that gained by working together to achieve more than is possible on your own.

Preconditions: Specific goals, elements of shared power, shared risk and participative leadership are all required to realise Collaborative Advantage.

Participants must be prepared to manage their/their organisation’s ego.  Collaboration is a form of experiment – dynamic and creative by nature because there are different perspectives in the mix.  So however strongly people believe their way of doing things is right, they have to embrace the possibility of being wrong and adapting when new evidence challenges existing conventions. 

Participating organisations must be able to ‘walk the talk’ with a culture of internal collaboration. They don’t have to be perfect, but must be honest with themselves (as above) in order to partner well. 

As Lank brilliantly puts it, trying to work in partnership without a clear understanding of collaborative skills is like trying to drive a car without understanding the highway code – the chances of an accident will be very high.  It’s worth learning the skills because the benefits include:   

  • Increased effectiveness and credibility
  • Increased influence or leverage
  • Turning threats into opportunities
  • Increased creativity and learning
  • Increased flexibility and resource efficiency

2. Preparation

Collaborations are about mutual dependencies involving risk and reward for both parties, so preparation is key.   People are often attracted by a sense of having shared values but these are some of the risks of just ‘jumping right in’: 

  • Incompatible culture, agenda/strategy or operations
  • lack of collaborative skills at individual or organisational levels
  • lack of political support
  • lack of resources

So good preparation is a relationship building exercise to build goal alignment, create trust and jointly held authority – it’s a critical up-front investment. In an ideal world, partners test the waters with a small pilot exercise to explore their cultural fit and working processes.

Before they start, all partners should ideally make an honest assessment of their collaborative skills – the deeper they run, and the more strongly they’re shared, the greater the security of the partnership and chances of success. Lank offers a good set of filters for helping people gauge their suitability for partnership work. She suggests people need to:

  • be respectful of different views
  • be able to handle difficult issues without being defensive or aggressive
  • be keen to learn from experience
  • be encouraging and supportive
  • be consistent in delivering on their commitments

Non Disclosure Agreements are common between partners who might otherwise be in competition and at the earliest stage, it’s worth noticing and naming any potential concerns or non-negotiables.  Lank also urges potential partners to consider exit strategies for things like Intellectual Property and joint assets before work begins.  

3. Structure & Resources

However informal things are, governance of some kind to manage the interests and responsibilities of those involved is needed in every collaboration.  In general, light frameworks of clear principle are better than contracts aiming to consider every detailed shade of possibility.  Lank quotes Hawkins (p.46) when he says ‘Contracts are written to cover failure, not success’.  She later notes how contracts designed to ensure fair play, assume low trust and can’t predict everything. They’re fine for transactional relationships, but can hamper collaboration with frustrating, expensive negotiations and delays which drain energy and enthusiasm.

I’m not going into organisational forms here (there are lots of options) – there are just two key factors when thinking about good structure for Collaborative Advantage.   1) Good clear, and ideally simple statements of principle designed to share things fairly and strengthen bonds of trust.  The agreement or body should have rules or guidance for distributing costs, benefits, ownership (if relevant, eg. Intellectual Property), resources and decision making powers.   2) Flexibility.  Every partner brings their own perspective, so each added interest increases the likelihood of things needing to adapt and change. Flexibility not only keeps things moving, it also gives partners a sense of choice. This freedom generates the energy and enthusiasm for strong Collaborative Advantage.

Powers and power dynamics are critical – the less evenly spread the balance of power, the harder it is to hang on to the mutual respect and energy for collaborating, leaving partnerships weak.  In strong cases, the ‘worth’ of resources from each partner, be it time, money, skills, experience or whatever, is given similar weight. This isn’t hard to do while partners see the Collaborative Advantage of their collective goals – but it’s not all covered by the structural agreement.  There are a bunch of relationship skills which are immediately in play from the outset – see more under ‘Integration’ below.

Collaborative efforts need resources and here, we often hit a weird management blind spot. Those responsible for ensuring budgets and people for their own organisations efforts often expect their representatives on a collaborative effort to make it work without dedicated budget or added resources. So let’s be clear – resources are needed both for the joint initiative and collaborative process itself. If the people to manage, coordinate, administrate and facilitate are missing, the advantage of collaborating is likely to go missing too.

I’ve got more experience than I’d like of trying to help make collective efforts work on a voluntary basis on top of other jobs. As Lank brilliantly puts it ‘coordination is a set of accountabilities, not a wish’.  This is especially true for communication. Messages can get confused easily enough between groups of people within an organisation, let alone between groups in different ones. So it’s wise to pick people to keep clear channels open for key information Eg. a ‘reporter’ responsible for messaging between partners internally, and another for messaging between the partnership as a whole and those outside.

Don’t leave it to chance that travel and meeting costs will magically be met, and if they’re met in kind, acknowledge the value as you would with other intangible benefits (eg. brand value) which are as important to the whole as cash.

4. Integration

The task is secondary.  This may sound like nonsense, especially as people tend to come together because they want to do something, and even more so because Collaborative Advantage is about doing more together than you can do on your own.  BUT – having spotted the opportunity, the first thing you need to do, is weigh each other up, for the reasons given in ‘preparation’ above.

There will always be people so keen to get on with things, that relationship building will make them irritable or anxious, with a sense of ‘wasted time’.  But that space for people to feel heard, valued and understood is the strongest foundation on which to build trust. As Lank so wisely says Proper investment in getting to know each other is one of the most essential aspects of building Collaborative Advantage.  

First impressions are significant.  So set the tone with a strong noticing practice (see skills below) – not just to explore each other’s values, goals and capabilities, but also to quickly land on matching or different expectations, experiences or preferred ways of working. These strengths and weaknesses are part of the stakeholder landscape, and will come in useful when you start to make responsibilities clear.

Noticing is about both the spoken and the subtle behavioural signals we give out. So be early rather than late, and leave together rather than early – avoid hierarchical seating if you can, don’t delegate seats to juniors and be as balanced in both listening and talking. 

Getting started

In an ideal world, a significant partnership would start in a retreat like the Walk Your Talk events I occasionally run in lovely ‘homely’ residential places where it’s both comfortable and welcoming. The social time of the first evening and meal together thoroughly breaks the personal ice so when work starts the following morning, it’s really easy to get into a productive space.  

General advice for meetings: DON’T fill the agenda from wall to wall with information exchange it’s bad practice for learning anyway, but you need to leave plenty of room for open discussion. This is why I’m personally such a huge fan of the Open Space format.

It’s best to involve facilitators at design stage because the pressure to ‘get things done’ can result in an event which dips energy and performance rather than lifting it.  If you gorge on food, the nutrition your body can’t process is passed as waste.  It’s the same with information, so be mindful of that and design for a purpose or purposes which won’t be too exhausting to try and achieve.

Things to include when first meeting to kick off a new partnership: 

Aligning Goals – don’t assume common understanding just because there’s an obvious ‘official’ goal agreed at organisational level – and don’t rush the process.  Give the individuals who gather freedom to take ownership of shared goals together – participative and creative ways of doing this are more engaging and will produce stronger bonds to help firmly root the partnership. Keep things grounded by checking the goals are SMART before you’re done.

Establish Norms – We’ve said managing ego is a pre-condition for Collaborative Advantage, and ego works from our mental model of the world – the unique perspectives we all have dictating what we think is ‘normal’.  So all partners need to talk about their own ways of working – what does and doesn’t work for them. By writing down what’s agreed,  these values and norms become a charter for collaboration. Lank quotes Jim Collins (Built to Last & Good to Great) to emphasise her point about values. ‘If you have any doubt about whether this is the right place for you, then it is in our mutual interest that you decline this opportunity’.

The front page of the Association of Sustainability Practitioners (ASP) is effectively a collaborative charter which has been created and adapted over many meetings and many years. It’s still imperfect, but works well enough that there’s a strong sense of boundaries and belonging.

As Lank notes (citing the Global Knowledge Partnership), the more diverse a partnership, the more important it is to clearly state principles and responsibilities. Different perspectives can easily cause unintentional damage bad enough to derail a collaborative effort completely. The best defence is transparency and a process which builds in the repetition of shared values. ASP deals with this problem by nurturing a culture governed by shared understanding of energy flows and feedback loops, with yardsticks for simplicity, low cost and high impact.

Co Location is also a major factor in the success of collaborative ventures. Partners who meet on a regular basis will bond better, tuning themselves into stronger alignment than those whose contact is either very irregular or just online. Full time co-location isn’t necessary and may even be less effective than a solid commitment to regular meetings. This is one of the reasons I’m passionate about the Funky Spaces network, which I think has great potential to nurture people working to promote flourishing lives on a thriving planet.

5. Nurturing & Developing

As Lank points out as she opens a chapter on ‘nurturing’ (p.75), collaborative efforts are all about people, and just as we all have good and bad days, there will be times when the enthusiasm and commitment to a partnership will wax and wane. So support and encouragement will be needed for as long as the partnership lives. She highlights three particular pinch points to watch for:

  • when people join a collaborative process
  • when conflicts arise, and
  • when people have to adjust to changes

I’m a major fan of Appreciative Inquiry, a branch of the Action Research discipline I referenced in the introduction. It doesn’t get an explicit mention in Lank’s treatise, but is certainly reflected in her analysis and advice. She notes the importance of induction for people who join a partnership when it’s already in full swing, and suggests ‘learning buddies’ to help settle people in. An Action Research approach would go further, establishing learning groups as part of the whole process of delivery.

We’ve all heard the saying ‘a chain is only as strong as the weakest link’ – and that rule applies here. Since everyone depends on everyone else, it’s everyone’s job (ie. not just the leader’s) to help each other out. To get the tasks done, relationships must be tended with the same noticing skills that cropped up under ‘integration’. People who get left out or are not heard, people who work hard but get little recognition, and people who don’t show up to meetings are all potentially weakening links. Pay attention to them, and keep feeding the system with the power of gratitude.

Whether your collaboration has a planned exit strategy or not, it’s important to use the appreciative approach at the end to celebrate the best of what worked, even if it didn’t all go to plan. Lank makes the profoundly important point that goodwill and trust are your stock in trade for all partnership work, so positive closure is necessary to keep your stock high. If things were difficult, be respectful and acknowledge the learning.

If your collaboration is international, then you’re probably playing several different ball games at once. All I’ll say here is that you’ll need an interpreter even if you’re all using the same language. Lank references Riding the Waves of Culture, which is a good place to start.

Lank’s conclusion about valuing people who understand group dynamics is so good, I’m putting it in verbatim. “Successfully guiding a collaborative venture through the minefield of interpersonal conflict, political whims, potential culture clashes, and a range of other unexpected obstacles, takes skill, courage, and determination. People with a track record of successfully steering a group through the minefield have a capability that should be greatly valued”.

6. Communication

Lank’s three technology myths are, in my experience, as true today as they were 12 years ago:

i) With good communications tech, you don’t need to meet face to face. Not true. You can’t establish strong trust and working relationships remotely, they need to be created in person. It may be less expensive, but it’s not cost effective if it doesn’t get the desired result.

ii) People will use the tools if they’re good. Not true. Personal preferences and habits are VERY strong. Lank does cite a successful example – but it involved spending more money on awareness raising and tech coaching than on tech development/acquisition. So the key question is not ‘which tech?’ but ‘how will we get this tool into mainstream use?’

iii) Capture all the data you can and we’ll be well informed. Not true. Information overload kicks in fast, so be dedicated to keeping the process streamlined and fit for purpose.

Her 5 tips for effective communications and information architecture are on pages 105-111.

7. Learning and Skills

To get the maximum possible value of Collaborative Advantage, time and resources must be invested in reflection. We’ve already noted some will dislike ‘inactive’ time, so the more seamlessly good learning processes can be blended into the venture, the better.

Individual, team and organisational learning are each worth their own investments. She reminds us to think about both the project itself and the collaborative process, and also to remember knowledge transfer doesn’t just happen because data is available – the best learning is unlocked when it’s facilitated – especially important if the organisation is to make valuable knowledge gains.

Lank cites the US Army After Action Review questions as an example of good knowledge acquisition process:
What was meant to happen?
What actually happened?
Why was there a difference?
What did we learn?
What action do we need to take?

Collaborative Skills & Culture

As Collaboration is built on foundations of good relationships and trust, the character and skills of the people involved is a critical factor. If you’re choosing someone to be an ambassador/representative on a partnership venture, choose based on competency rather than role or availability. The more reps who are close to the ideal, the better the partnership will cope with challenges, and the less skillful the reps, the more challenging it will be. Here’s Lank’s ‘perfect’ v ‘nightmare’ partner

Command and control leadership isn’t suitable for partnerships of equals and peers. So whoever, or however many people are involved in leading a leadership, they need to be able to:
– reconcile different views and build consensus
– articulate and promote shared vision
– balance the strategic and the operational
– encourage and inspire others
– hold people to commitments
– juggle stakeholder relationships
– be comfortable with ambiguity and complexity

All of which takes patience and time. If the Collaborative Advantage is outweighed by the time required – don’t do it!

Building collaborative capacity

If an organisation has an adversarial, hierarchical, internally competitive culture, it’s unlikely to fare well in partnership – and of course, the opposite is true. One that’s got a good collaborative culture, will be well placed to gain Collaborative Advantage. All the same principles above apply to internal efforts as well. Communities of practice, purpose or interest which draw people in an organisation together outside their main functional ‘day job’ are great opportunities to promote partnership skills. Lank outlines 7 blockers to internal collaboration with ways of overcoming them between pages 150-157.

She concludes her book with suggestions about how to build organisational capacity for Collaborative Advantage. They are: Make the possibility of collaboration strategic, by asking questions about potential alliances when planning. Ensure you have a way of pooling resources across departmental lines. Include recognition and reward for collaborative work in performance reviews and competency frameworks. Assign responsibility for collaboration to a member of the leadership team, with permission to support/encourage collaborative skills champions.

If you’re not sure where to start – have a conversation based around the key points in this article and you’ll quickly gain a thumbnail sketch of your current capability. You may already have more collaborative capacity than you think.