Professor David Gilchrist explores what true collaboration is and why we so desperately need it now.

To collaborate successfully, leaders need to have a special set of skills and the capacity to set aside their ego in return for truly inclusive decision making.

Talking about collaboration is easy but practice is hard. This is especially the case in the context of public policy in a federation like Australia where a multiplicity of governments and policy makers seek to deliver on promises in areas such as health which are extremely complex to start with.

However, barriers to real collaboration are hardwired into public sector modes of operation prioritising silos and making effective collaboration difficult in the extreme.

My colleague Dr John Butler and I examine collaborations in the field in our new book, Collaboration for Impact—those that are working and those that are not—to distil the tenets of working collaborative practice.

However, we first had to identify true collaborations and separate them from joint ventures and other structures employing multiple organisational inputs in the guise of collaboration.

Professor Gilchrist holds a chair at the UWA Business School and is Convenor of Not-for-profits UWA

Professor Gilchrist holds a chair at the UWA Business School and is Convenor of Not-for-profits UWA

That collaboration is important, laudable and desirable is supported readily. Indeed, it is almost universally praised as both worthy of public policy objectives and of the greater democratic context in which universal health care is delivered.

What we have identified is that true collaboration is counter-cultural rather than counter-intuitive so that finding examples of effective true collaboration is more difficult.

The purpose of our book is to do two things:

  • to describe how properly conceived and executed collaboration can breakdown the interminable silos experienced in the public policy world;
  • and to describe what the components of a properly conceived and executed collaboration looks like.

Fundamentally, though, true collaboration challenges the traditional working model of public sector and private not-for-profit and for-profit organisations.

True collaboration is transgressive, it usually involves the violation of accepted conventions, rules, norms and boundaries. This is a reason why instances of true collaboration are hard to find and why it presents a challenge to managers in hierarchical organisational structures—true collaboration requires trust, flexibility and work environments that are separated from the traditional corporatised structure.

To collaborate successfully, leaders need to have a special set of skills and the capacity to set aside their ego in return for truly inclusive decision making. Indeed, we have termed this leadership mindset required in order to achieve effective collaboration “Collaborative Intelligence” or “CQ”.

A leader demonstrating CQ will accept relationships between personnel as central to collaboration—they will understand the people collaborate not the organisations. As such, interpersonal relationships are the building blocks of collaboration and so a person with high CQ will be generous in constructing and maintaining personal ties with, and between, collaboration personnel.

Unfortunately, it is not solely up to those with high CQs and who are generous leaders. Any successful collaboration also needs to have an authorising environment that is sponsored by a senior manager who champions the collaboration within the ‘home organisation’.

The champion within the traditional structure must trust the leader of the collaboration notwithstanding that the normal reporting and governance processes might not apply in that environment. However, those leaders with a high CQ and leading collaborations, will always support the champion by reducing their sense of risk through timely reporting.

Assurance to stakeholders within the ‘home organisation’ is a critical component in gaining and retaining trust.

Of course, having a high CQ would include a strong capacity for communications, the ability to act with authenticity and to maintain support within the collaborative environment and within the partner organisations. These attributes engender trust and create legitimacy for collaborative leaders.

As indicated, we report on a number of cases in order to focus on what is working and what is not. We have taken a practical view of collaboration as well as the enduring barriers to effectiveness. The cases are varied and tell us much about the longstanding and enduring problems that have proved resistant to other methods of management.

The complexities of health in Australia and the programmatic nature of traditional responses, most recently emphasised as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, suggest strongly that it is time to revisit the opportunity inherent in true collaboration, where experimentation and innovation can combine with the experience of public policy makers and practitioners to explore and report on new ways to respond effectively to the wicked problems we face.

ED: Professor Gilchrist holds a chair at the UWA Business School and is Convenor of Not-for-profits UWA

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