Social transformation and systemic change cannot happen when we work in silos. Complex social issues require people with diverse talents, knowledge and backgrounds to think together and work together. But working collaboratively is challenging. There are times when we need to work with strangers, rivals, and oppositions. 

Working collaboratively requires us to shift from hubris to humility.


Our own failures to advance social innovations have provided us with some insightful lessons on the barriers and enabling factors to healthy collaborative relationships. 

Factors hindering collaborative endeavours:

  • Collaboration is time and resource intensive, especially in the initial stages
  • Desire of power-holders and key influencers to maintain control and ‘protect their turf’
  • Conflicting priorities and rules
  • Different organisational culture, policies and procedures
  • Reluctant to/constraints on sharing information
  • Insufficient support from leaders and key decision-makers
  • Different IT systems
  • Active or passive opposition to the process and venture
  • Our egos and the mistrust about the motives of others often prevent innovations from scaling to durable impact.


Factors supportive of successful collaboration:

  • Co-create shared vision, philosophy, and culture.
  • Emphasise purpose and have clarity about context and process.
  • Encourage informal and routine interactions and communication across all levels.
  • Build a psychological safety net where asking questions and receiving information do not feel like an admission of weakness.
  • Strong cross-sector leadership.
  • Encourage cross organisation training and team building activities.
  • Understanding partner’s organisational cultures, values and limitations.
  • Have clear information sharing procedures.
  • Ability to openly and honestly negotiate differences in terms of power and priorities.
  • Take an iterative approach to action that accepts the novelty and uncertainty in interactions between individuals and in the possibilities they develop.
  • Agree on shared measurement and evaluation.

We have also found the following personal practices support healthy collaborative relationships:

  • Suspending the “Voice of Judgment”: look at the situation through the eyes of the people we are working with.
  • Accessing our beginner’s mind: be a learner, pay attention to and trust what is occurring.
  • Accessing our appreciative listening: Listen with the intention to appreciate the ideas, knowledge and story of others.
  • Accessing our generative listening: Focus on the best future possibility for the situation at hand.
  • Not interrupting.
  • Going with the flow.
  • Speaking up: asking questions, acknowledging errors, and raising issues.

3 Cs model

A more structured approach to understand the commitment and mechanisms required to work together is the 3 Cs model developed by Keast, Glasby and Brown.1 The 3Cs are cooperative, coordinative and collaborative. Their model outlines the degree of collaboration and the key requirements that foster joint efforts and shared outcomes. 

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The depth of collaborative relationship

The depth of collaborative relationship scale is another way to
appreciate the granularity of collaboration. Consulting and
information sharing are the least intense forms of relationship while
formal partnership agreement and merger are the most intense.

Innovation happens at the intersections


Collaboration is a serious endeavour. Collaborative relationships are
complex, cyclical and iterative. It takes commitment, patience,
persistence and hard earned trust. We need to lean into the spaces
in-between, with open hearts and minds … because innovation
happens at the intersections.


1 Keast, R. L., Brown, K. A., and Mandel, M. 2007, ‘Getting the right mix: unpacking integration meanings and strategies’, International Public Management Journal, 10:1, pp 9-33.


Further readings:
J. Kania, F. Hanleybrown and J. Splansky Juster, ‘Essential Mindset Shifts
for Collective Impact’, Stanford Social Innovation Review. Fall 2014.
R. Keast and M. Mandell, 'The collaborative push: moving beyond rhetoric and gaining evidence', Journal of Management & Governance. 2014, 18:1.


Robyn Lui, Ph.D.
Founder & Principal Strategist at
Social Change Collective & general mischief-maker.
Mission: championing good people to achieve
great things that benefit people and the planet.

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