Lately I have been involved in several initiatives that require collaboration between informal or temporary teams. 

Some of these came about thanks to joining a volunteer committee that was planning a big event (Social Venture Partners FastPitch, The Change Tank, Calgary+Acumen).  Others were smaller group collaborations (sometimes with less clear objectives) with individuals from different organizations coming together to work on improving the overall ecosystem that we all operate in.

Every collaboration I am a part of ranges in both objectives and the level of impact each project’s success or failure will have on my business activities and/or personal life.

As a social enterprise coach,  I also find myself facilitating collaborative teams and partnerships. The most recent case was as a coach for Change Tank – One Weekend to Change the World.  This is an especially unique case because it was designed after the Start Up Weekend format where teams form together in the course of just one evening and are charged with the task of developing their entrepreneurial ideas in only 2.5 days!

Change Tank Team

Change Tank Team (Prologue)

Change Tank, in particular, came with high stakes; teams were challenged to build out social business ideas that would have an impact on 10 million of the poorest people in the world within 10 years, with the chance to win $30,000 and mentoring to get the project off the ground.

It’s apparent that collaboration and partnerships come in all different shapes and sizes, so it’s difficult to apply a formula for success.  That said, there are some key steps you can take to increase your success next time you find yourself in a newly formed team or partnership with the goal of achieving something greater together than you could individually.


1. Practice Active Listening

Sometimes it takes some tough conversations to get a solid collaboration off the ground. This is especially true in cases like Change Tank where individuals are coming from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences, and have to come to consensus and start taking action quickly.

It’s crucial to stay open minded and listen to the needs and desires of the other people you are collaborating with. If you have someone in the group who is shy or quieter than the rest be sure to pointedly ask them to share their thoughts. Also look out for unspoken communication cues, like body language, that provide insight to how someone might be feeling in the group.

The group should be stronger together than as it’s parts, so having every member engaged and motivated is key.

[Tweet “Sometimes it takes some tough conversations to get a solid collaboration off the ground.”]


2. Set Clear Expectations

Make sure every collaborator has voiced what they expect from the group as a whole, both in terms of inputs and outcomes, as well as how they see themselves contributing.

It’s easy to skip over this step when a new team is formed and everyone is excited to get started!  But taking some time at the early stages of a partnership to outline expectations can save the group plenty of headaches, confusion and conflict later on in the process.

[Tweet “Make sure every collaborator has voiced what they expect from the group as a whole, both in terms of inputs and outcomes…”]


3. Agree on the Goals

You need a common vision, goal or objective to bind a collaborating group together.

Be sure to spend some time early on in the collaboration to articulate the shared vision and understanding of the goals and mission of the project.  Sometimes everyone thinks they are on the same page, and find out much later they weren’t as aligned as they first hoped!

In Mark Holmgren’s article article, Drivers of Collaboration, he reminds us that every person at the table in a collaboration has an individual agenda.  But this is not necessarily a bad thing!  We need to be aware of the egos in the room, and work constructively with everyone’s motivations.

Mark says, “instead of ignoring individual agendas (which, if we are honest, never really happens), we should invite them, work with them, and use them to foster the common aspirations we seek.”

In one volunteer team I was working with, we used the GROW framework to guide an early meeting.  It was useful to shape our discussion around the challenges we faced and review our options for moving forward. Using GROW framework allowed the discussion to flow without feeling like any one individual was favouring certain outcomes, or guiding the discussion to meet their own agenda.

[Tweet “You need a common vision, goal or objective to bind a collaborating group together.”]


4. Open, Honest, and Respectful Communication

When collaboration works it should be “win/win”, where results created are greater than the sum of the parts.  To get to this place, collaborations require open, honest and respectful communication along every stage in the journey.

Being open and honest helps create trust, and allows the team to resolve conflict early on.  As long as touchy subjects and difficult conversations are brought up respectfully, honesty will always win.

I had the pleasure of hearing Al Etmanski speak at the Social Enterprise World Forum in 2013.  He spoke about collaboration in the social sector and one thing that stuck with me was that we need to be as willing to learn about collaboration as we are about learning the practice of social enterprise.

In other words, collaboration is not easy. It takes more time, more emotions, more tact, more patience.  But in the end, if our goal is to move the needle on our world’s most pressing problems, it’s worth it.

[Tweet “Collaborations require open, honest and respectful communication along every stage in the journey.”]


5. Fill the Gaps

Look for strengths in others to the fill the gaps in yours and your team’s skills.

Similarly, when choosing who to to collaborate with, stay honest in recognizing when you truly value their work and contribution to the project, or when you are moving forward because you ‘feel like you should’.

If a partner or team member does not genuinely appreciate their collaborators’ contributions, it will show and could ultimately reduce, or jeopardize altogether, the outcomes of the project.

Another point from Al Etmanski on collaboration that I really appreciated was the acknowledgement that it takes all kinds.  He spoke of 3 types of social entrepreneurs:

  • Disruptive Entrepreneurs – those who deliver the big systems-changing ideas and disruptive innovation. 
  • Bridging Entrepreneurs – the foundations, supporters, funders and other who support and nurture social change initiatives. 
  • Receptive Entrepreneurs – those intrapreneurs who are usually more anonymous but are crucial in navigating bureaucracy and amending specific aspects of systems from within large organizations.

So when you’re building out a collaborative team for the goal of achieving more together than you could separately, take advantage of our diversity and build a team that possesses together all the key capabilities you need to achieve your goals.

[Tweet “Look for strengths in others to the fill the gaps in yours and your team’s skills.”]