4. Doing Things Collaboratively: Realizing the Advantage or Succumbing to Inertia?[1] [2]

Chris Huxham and Siv Vangen

Table of Contents

PERSPECTIVE 1: WE MUST HAVE COMMON AIMS BUT WE CANNOT AGREE ON THEM
Managing Aims in Practice
PERSPECTIVE 2: SHARING POWER IS IMPORTANT, BUT PEOPLE BEHAVE AS IF IT’S ALL IN THE PURSE STRINGS
Managing Power in Practice
PERSPECTIVE 3: TRUST IS NECESSARY FOR SUCCESSFUL COLLABORATION, BUT WE ARE SUSPICIOUS OF EACH OTHER
Managing Trust in Practice
PERSPECTIVE 4: WE ARE PARTNERSHIP-FATIGUED AND TIRED OF BEING PULLED IN ALL DIRECTIONS
Managing Ambiguity and Complexity in Practice
PERSPECTIVE 5: EVERYTHING KEEPS CHANGING
Managing Collaborative Dynamics in Practice
PERSPECTIVE 6: LEADERSHIP IS NOT ALWAYS IN THE HANDS OF MEMBERS
Managing Leadership Media
PERSPECTIVE 7: LEADERSHIP ACTIVITIES CONTINUALLY MEET WITH DILEMMAS AND DIFFICULTIES
Managing Leadership Activities
REALIZING COLLABORATIVE ADVANTAGE
DON’T WORK COLLABORATIVELY UNLESS YOU HAVE TO
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

The project has worked out, but oh boy, it has caused pain.

– senior health promotion officer, health promotion partnership

Decisions are made by the Alliance Executive, but they keep procrastinating over big decisions ... you can’t afford to procrastinate over spending a million pounds.

– information manager, retail property development alliance

Multi-agency work is very slow ... trying to get people moving collectively rather than alone is difficult.

– project officer, young offender community organization

I am under partnership attack from my colleagues.

– operations manager, engineering supply chain

The long catalogue of failed JVs—lcatel/Sharp, Sony/Qualcomm, Lucent/Philips—demonstrates the enormous difficulties in pulling companies like these together.

– a Gartner analyst quoted in the Financial Times, 10 December 2002, p. 8

Not everyone who works daily in collaborative alliances, partnerships or networks reports such negative experiences as those quoted above. Indeed the Financial Times (24 June 2003, p. 14) reports a Nokia executive as saying that their linkages are paying off. Others talk similarly enthusiastically about their partnership experiences:

When it works well you feel inspired ... you can feel the collaborative energy.

However, very many do express frustration. There has been much rhetoric about the value of strategic alliances, industry networks, public service delivery partnerships and many other collaborative forms, but reports of unmitigated success are not common. In this article we explore the nature of the practice of collaboration, focusing in particular on some of the reasons why collaborative initiatives tend to challenge those involved. Two concepts are central to this exploration. The first is collaborative advantage. This captures the synergy argument: to gain real advantage from collaboration, something has to be achieved that could not have been achieved by any one of the organizations acting alone. This concept provides a useful ‘guiding light’ for the purpose of collaboration. The second concept, collaborative inertia, captures what happens very frequently in practice: the output from a collaborative arrangement is negligible, the rate of output is extremely slow, or stories of pain and hard grind are integral to successes achieved.

Clearly there is a dilemma between advantage and inertia. The key question seems to be:

If achievement of collaborative advantage is the goal for those who initiate collaborative arrangements, why is collaborative inertia so often the outcome?

To address this question, and the question of what managers can do about it, we will present a set of seven overlapping perspectives on collaborative management. This is extracted from the theory of collaborative advantage, which has derived from extensive action research over 15 years. We have worked with practitioners of collaboration, in the capacity of facilitators, consultants and trainers, in a wide variety of collaborative situations. We have kept detailed records about the challenges and dilemmas faced by managers, and of comments they make in the course of enacting their collaborative endeavours. Many such statements are reproduced as illustrative examples in this article.

PERSPECTIVE 1: WE MUST HAVE COMMON AIMS BUT WE CANNOT AGREE ON THEM

Agreement on aims is an appropriate starting point because it is raised consistently as an issue. Common wisdom suggests that it is necessary to be clear about the aims of joint working if partners are to work together to operationalise policies.

Typically individuals argue for common (or at least compatible), agreed, or clear sets of aims as a starting point in collaboration. Common practice, however, appears to be that the variety of organisational and individual agendas that are present in collaborative situations makes reaching agreement difficult. For example, a board member of an alliance of 120 charities commented on the difficulty of reconciling members’ interests. Invariably someone would call to say, ‘We don’t want you to do that.’

The reasons behind the struggles for agreement may not be obvious. Organisations come together bringing different resources and expertise to the table, which in turn creates the potential for collaborative advantage. Yet organisations also have different reasons for being involved, and their representatives seek to achieve different outputs from their involvement. Sometimes these different organisational aims lead to conflicts of interest. Furthermore, for some organisations the joint purpose for the collaboration is perceived as central to achieving organisational purposes, whereas others are less interested and perhaps only involved (reluctantly) as a result of external pressure. Tensions often arise, therefore, because some organisations are very interested in influencing and controlling the joint agenda, and some are reluctant to commit resources to it, and so on. Similarly, individuals too will join the collaboration with different expectations, aspirations and understandings of what is to be achieved jointly. It follows that whilst at first glance it may appear that partners only need be concerned with the joint aims for the collaboration, in reality organisational and individual aims can prevent agreement because they cause confusion, misunderstanding and conflicts of interest. In addition, while some of these various aims may be explicit, many will be taken for granted (assumed) by one partner but not necessarily recognized by another, and many will be deliberately hidden:

My company is really most interested in having access to, and experience of, the Chinese business environment and cares little for the formally declared purpose of the alliance.

On reflection then it is not so surprising that reaching agreement can be very difficult.

Figure 1 – A framework for understanding aims in collaboration

(one participant’s perspective)

Explicit

Assumed

Hidden

Collaboration Aims

The purpose of the collaboration

By definition, these are perceptions of joint aims and so cannot be hidden

Organisation Aims

What each organisation hopes to gain for itself via the collaboration

Individual Aims

What each individual hopes to gain for him/herself via the collaboration

Managing Aims in Practice

Fig. 1 is a simplified version of a framework of aims in collaborative situations. Its purpose is to facilitate a better understanding of the motivations of those involved, and the ways in which multiple and (sometimes even) conflicting aims can prevent agreement and block progress. In turn, this sort of understanding can help in finding ways of addressing the concerns of all involved.

The framework distinguishes between the various types of aims mentioned above and emphasizes that some aims will be assumed rather than explicitly acknowledged, and many will be deliberately hidden. This framework can be used as an effective tool for gaining insight about the motivations of members of a collaboration—even of one’s own! Obviously it is not possible to know others’ hidden agendas, but it is possible to speculate on the possibility that they might have some—and even have a guess at what they might be. Trying to ‘fill in’ each of the cells of the framework for each other partner can be enlightening, whether it is done quickly, ‘back of an envelope’ style, or as a major investigative exercise. Gaining this kind of insight into partners’ expectations and aspirations can be very helpful in understanding and judging how best to work with them.

At the general level, the obvious conclusion to be drawn from the framework is that it is rarely going to be easy in practice to satisfy fully the common wisdom. Therein lies the dilemma—clarity of purpose provides much needed direction, yet open discussion can unearth irreconcilable differences! Difficulties that arise out of the need to communicate across different professional and natural languages and different organisational and professional cultures are unlikely to assist the negotiation process. Likewise, concerns about accountability of participants to their own organisations or to other constituents are unlikely to make it easy for individuals to make compromises. Often, the only practical way forward is to get started on some action without fully agreeing the aims. In the words of the manager of an urban regeneration partnership engaged in writing a bid for funding, the task for managers can be to:

find a way of stating the aims so that none of the parties can disagree.




[1] This paper was originally published in Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 190–201, 2004. It is reprinted here by permission of the publisher.

[2] Acknowledgments: Colin Eden and Nic Beech have been involved in developing specific elements of this theory. Their perspectives and styles of researching have provided invaluable insights. We would also like to thank Murray Stewart and Robin Hambleton for the research collaboration that led to our work on collaborative leadership. Many, many practitioners have been wittingly and unwittingly involved in the development of this theory; they are too numerous to name, but our thanks are due to them all. We would like to acknowledge the support for this research of the U.K. Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) under ESRC grant numbers 000234450 and L130251031 and the ESRC/EPSRC Advanced Institute of Management Research grant number RES-331-25-0016.