A Collaboration Playbook

Three Principles to Guide Successful Collaborations

Joan Parker | Former President & CEO | Counterpart International

Photo credit: Josh Calabrese

The subject of this report is collaboration, which is at the center of all successful social change efforts worldwide, no matter the topic, the times, or the talent.

More specifically, this report explores collaboration in global development, where people commit their time, talent, and financial support to solving huge challenges to global prosperity, even those outside their own country borders.

As someone who leapt into global development with gusto 30 years ago, I’ve stepped back to ponder what makes certain global efforts wildly successful, while others either fail to launch or fade over time. Inevitably, high-quality collaboration is at the core of those successes.

Even better, there are key, definable elements of great collaborations – elements that can be built into any effort.

Based on my organization’s work building collaboration playbooks, let me share three principles I’ve identified that organizers of successful collaborations embrace. See if you can find them in the articles included in this report.

Principle 1: Lead from the back

Unless I am working in my own community, I am an outsider, no matter how many months or years I devote to that community or cause. As an outsider, I can be a great catalyst by injecting ideas and resources, motivating change, and serving as a short-term ally for those who lack sufficient power.

But, sooner or later, outsiders leave, and the community carries on. If local partners have been at the center of every stage of the change process from the start, then there is hope that those solutions can and will be sustained.

Local champions must have the opportunity to lead in every aspect of the project, from analyzing the challenge, to defining success, to creating potential solutions, to testing and improving them over time.

Outsiders tend to give themselves better grades on “leading from the back” than local partners would give them. What looks like power-sharing to the more resourced party is often experienced by others as tokenism. That’s why an entirely new playbook is needed to bring “leading from the back” to life – including mechanisms that ensure local leaders have a full voice and role at every stage and that they are offered more deliberate mentorship to strengthen skills as needed.

Principle 2: Managing personal ego

I’ll admit it: the reason I devoted my time to huge challenges in far-away countries is because I had a vision that I could make a difference. I staked my career on that vision. And yet, my personal vision had a habit of getting in the way of collaborative efforts. I’ve learned that successful collaborations start with a shared vision, and a shared journey brings that vision to reality.

Just like the first principle, we need new disciplines to let go of our personal vision. My technique was to stop bringing forward an agenda, and instead bring forward a question or idea, around which I engaged and listened. Magic happened in those conversations. Every time, the shared vision or plan was significantly different and better than what I had initially imagined.

Photo credit: Randy Fath

The institutional corollary is equally important.

An outside organization needs to leave its ego at the door and invite local organizations to imagine and co-create.

Co-creation is only the beginning. Collaborative processes then flow through multi-institutional design, planning, budgeting, and move on to implementation, evaluation, and redesign. The goal is for the outside organization to never seize back ownership, even in the face of mistakes.

You can consider collective action and team learning as intermediate outcomes of the program because, in truth, they both are needed for long-term success.

Principle 3: Practice strategic patience

What was discussed above takes time. That’s why most successful collaborations follow a classic “hockey stick” results curve. Slow change occurs first, but once the magic happens, sustained results can outshine even the most ambitious plans.

At the early stages, the primary goals are to build trust, commitment, and alignment.

All three are necessary elements for success. Only at that point do team members fully reveal their respective strengths (and gaps) that will be part of sustained collective success.

I’ve learned this in other parts of my life as well. In climbing mountains, we practice strategic patience by putting the climber who is struggling the most at the front to set the pace. That gets us to our destination together, if a bit more slowly. In social change efforts, this supportive pace has enormous value by building the skills, endurance, teamwork, and relationships needed to be successful.

In sum, these three principles – leading from the back, managing personal ego, and practicing strategic patience – underpin my own “collaboration playbook.” I believe they are needed for the next generation of social change initiatives, allowing us to collectively tackle bigger challenges than we ever could alone and honoring the experience and talent that every participant brings to the table.

As you read the articles in this report, I encourage you to find your own collaboration principles and to find practical ways to plan them into your next collaborative effort.

Wishing the Posner Center Community all success!

Joan Parker
Former President & CEO
Counterpart International