There is a lot of discussion today about the benefits of collaboration between organisations. This thinking has become of interest to local authorities and the public sector more generally in particular. Collaborative working across organisational, geographical and political boundaries is thought of as a key enabler to achieve many benefits to a range of services. The driver for collaboration is focused mainly on efficiency as a route to financial savings for each local authority and for citizens and the community in terms of the experience of receiving the services they need.
There is a difference between working together and collaboration
We have witnessed hugely successful arrangements where people work together but we have also worked with a range of organisations that have strategically chosen to work collaboratively with other organisations. From shared service arrangements between local authorities, Integrated Care System development within the NHS and the coming together (both physically and in specific operational scenarios) of a city division of a police constabulary and the community safety directorate of the city council where it was located we have encountered both working together and collaboration
Our experience has taught us that people who come together to work alongside each other, have a significantly different reason for doing so than the whole organisation collaboration approach that aims to achieve more strategic objectives.
All of the collaborations we have supported had a simple overarching objective - in essence to come together to improve service delivery to the community it serves, whilst making better use of money and resources.
Hitting the all too familiar barriers
Unfortunately though, other than the objective, they had one other thing in common. Every collaborative relationship we have supported to date, hit the same four barriers almost immediately:
· Politics (big and small p)
· Lack of respect and trust between organisations
· The fear of ‘letting go’
· The ‘turf war’ at the leadership and management levels
To some, these barriers were recognisable almost immediately and action was taken. To others they were not apparent in the first instance but leadership stayed away from the hard discussions needed and regrettably for some, they were recognised but in their determination to plough on with their objectives, they were avoided which only compounded the problems they were facing.
These hurdles are not as a result of poor processes, inadequate technology or even the level of commitment of any of the people involved. The four barriers were all down to culture and the environment within which the relationship between organisations was built.
Regardless of the new committees, the newly established boards, the regular programme meetings and the setting up of a variety of matrix managed workstreams, for collaborative working to have a good chance of success, it is vital that the difficult conversations are had right at the start and at every level of each organisation involved.
Developing a collaborative working culture is the ‘must do’ first step
Done sensitively, ‘designing’ the culture collectively is a powerful way to engage leaders, managers and staff and to raise to the surface the unwritten rules and the potential tensions at the earliest stage.
It is not about culture change it is about culture development for a new relationship
Understanding the culture needed and the behaviours required whilst organisations are dealing with each other is paramount to collaborative working success.
To achieve this, start by having a collective understanding of the key cultural characteristics required to make the collaboration work. In creating the ‘cultural language’ of the relationship collectively, you begin the process of gaining trust – as everybody is keen to play their part in a culture that has been collectively agreed to be the aspiration of all.
Collaboration requires a relationship of trust built on three pillars:
· There is equity between all organisations
· Transparency and the sharing of knowledge is the norm
· Work is conducted to the mutual benefit of all parties at all times
The four barriers, and therefore the potential difficult conversations, are dealt with by open discussions prompted by two simple questions:
· What do each of those three pillars mean to us and how are we collectively understanding that meaning within the context of our collaborative working?
· What will we all see, hear and feel to tell us those pillars exist?
Agreement and clarity of understanding, supported by consistency in the behaviours required, enables trust to grow. As individuals, we don’t simply ‘trust’ somebody. It is a collection of different dimensions that collectively influence our decision to either trust somebody or not. The same is true of organisations. Understanding what those dimensions are and agreeing on them collectively provides a strong basis for moving the relationship forward.
Ensure there is an understanding of the culture needed for success that is shared by all, provide clarity to assist in gaining an understanding of what is expected and agree on what each party will do to achieve it, is the important first step.
Richie is a founding Director of Lynchpin and Associates Ltd (trading as Lynchpin Solutions), a UK based Transformation and Improvement Consultancy. Following a 22 year career in the British army, and an 11 year spell as Head of OD for a large local authority, Richie now seeks to raise awareness of the fact that the foundation to business success and transformation sustainability is recognising that an organisations culture is key - in particular, identifying and developing the specific cultural characteristics needed for success. Those characteristics must be positively influenced by all leaders, employees, processes and procedures alike. He is now a sought-after presenter on transforming workplace culture and the role of culture in transformation and change.. Richie holds a Masters’ degree and is a contributing author on the bestselling management book 'The Executive Diet' , His company are the only UK/Europe based licensed consultants for the globally acclaimed UGRs® (Unwritten Ground Rules) culture development concept, as he is a partner of the concepts’ creator, Australian Steve Simpson. The concept is globally acclaimed, being used by such companies as Walmart in Australia, Kmart in New Zealand, McLaren and NEXT in the UK and the mining industry in South Africa. Many public sector organisations across the UK have been supported by Lynchpin to develop collaborative workplace cultures. Richie's mantra is “ ensure culture is centre stage - don’t leave it to chance and become a victim of it’”.