Patterns of Collaboration

We always say that HSD is about good questions—the answers are up to you! Of course, that is because every complex system is unique, so the patterns of success will depend on local, immediate circumstances, more than the certainty of some evidence-based answer.

A month ago, I was talking with a community organization about collaboration. Again, I was convinced of the primacy of questions over answers in complex environments. The clients asked:

  • Do we have to share visions?
  • How much time should we commit to developing a shared vision?
  • What do we do if they have hidden agenda or if our goals are not aligned?
  • What if they fail to meet our expectations, even when we have a written agreement?
  • How do we know if we are succeeding?
  • How often should we connect and how? We don’t have time to live in their pockets!
  • What can we ask for? What do we do if they don’t deliver?
  • Why don’t they fulfil their commitments?
  • How can we trust them to follow through?

Before any of these questions can be answered, there is a more fundamental question: What kind of collaboration will move you and your partners to your shared goal? As long as both partners agree to the purpose and pattern of their collaboration, then the other questions are much easier to ask—and answer in context.  

The following table frames four patterns of collaboration and the conditions that are “fit for function” for each one. They all have strengths and challenges. The “right” pattern depends on the purpose, context, history, and players. We play in them all!

Mutual Support. At the HSD Institute, we have friends and colleagues who do research in a wide range of fields. When we have a question in one of their areas of expertise, rather than diving into the weeds ourselves, we will first contact them to see what we can learn. They return the favor when they need information about complexity or the dynamics of human systems. 

Shared Projects. We have a fabulous collaboration with the Association for Medical Education in Europe. Over the years, we have developed and delivered programs, provided behind-the-scenes support, and introduced new ideas and methods into their conferences. In return, they have shared our HSD story, provided raw materials for case studies, and opportunities for us to connect with potential clients and colleagues. 

Joint Ventures. We engage in joint ventures when we have a large-scale initiative or program that we want to pursue together. Our #PatternswithDeath program is a great example of a joint venture. A group of HSD Associates have come together to pool resources and create a library of stories about how HSD models and methods influence patterns related to mortality—ours and others’.

Strategic Partners. As you might imagine, strategic partners are few and far between! We have one collaboration that may emerge into this pattern over time. We work with Greater than the Sum. They developed, market, and support sumApp, a fabulous tool for mapping dynamical social networks. Our methods are different, but our visions of how to support complex human systems are quite similar. We are currently working on shared projects—leaning toward joint venture. I can imagine some point in the future when the pattern of our collaboration could bring us closer together and into shared strategic identity.

As you can see, each of these patterns has its place. You can also see how destructive it might be if we were not explicit about our expectations or intentional about the patterns we wished to create together. 

If you and your partners agree on the pattern of collaboration that meets your goals, then you are ready to negotiate answers to all the other thorny questions of collaboration. Keep in mind:

  • If you don’t agree on the pattern of your collaboration, you will feel tensions and pressures in lots of places.
  • The dialogue that moves you and your partners toward an answer is almost as important as the question, and it is certainly more important than the answer that emerges.
  • Your collaboration will emerge over time, so you should revisit these questions often, and with an open mind.
  • Written agreements are important, but they are irrelevant if the lived experience is different than the black-and-white agreement.
  • While a collaboration may be between organizations, the relationships among individuals are what make them work. Pay attention to how you connect with others and how they connect with you.
  • Trust is based on meeting expectations—most of the time. Unclear or mismatched expectations always degrade trust.

So with these patterns of collaboration in mind, as we build our own collaborations or support clients in theirs, we will ask:

  • WHAT pattern of collaboration fits the work we need to do together and the resources we can commit to our shared work?
  • SO WHAT does that mean for the conditions of our collaboration?
  • NOW WHAT can we do to align expectations with reality and move forward together?

Let me know how this helps you understand the successes and disasters of past collaborations and prepares you for successes in the future. 

Glenda Eoyang

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