Collaboration is More Than Just a Buzz Word

Maureen Leif, President, Grays Peak Strategies

Col·lab·o·ra·tion is by definition the action of working with someone to produce or create something. It is not working on the same project separately. It seems in the world that we operate today that collaboration is more than a “nice to have”, but a “must have”. It always sounds so easy on paper, yet it can be complex, difficult, and frustrating. I had the good fortune of being able to attend a Partner Forum in Lansing, MI recently co-facilitating a conversation about collaboration with a hundred of their best child support professionals. The goal of the morning was to inspire them to think about collaboration differently, to be open to new ideas on how to collaborate and to exchange ideas and strategies about how to bring about better collaboration. I took it on as a personal goal to inspire them, however I also left the beautiful Michigan Hall of Justice inspired.

Having a shared vision for the group is the starting point for any collaboration. Do not assume that everyone in the group is going where you want to go, ask them. It is a lot easier to pack for a trip if you know where you are going. Do not discuss the vision once and then move on, talk about the vision early and often. If the group hits a stall start with figuring out if there has been a shift in the vision.


Shared Ideas at the Michigan Collaboration Workshop with Child Support Leadership

The strategies that we talked about revolved around the most common obstacles to effective collaboration: time, turf, trust and communication.

Time – Any collaboration has to be given adequate time and attention. In-person meetings can be time consuming, but incredibly effective if handled right. Assess if your meeting needs to be in person, set the agenda and circulate ahead of time. Respect for each other’s time is crucial to making the partnership work.

Turf – Ask yourself and the group if you have invited the right people? Have you ever been to a meeting where a few of the people do all of the talking? If no, you are lucky and can skip ahead. For the rest of us, ensure that everyone has a voice in the work. This will go a long way in getting buy-in and long term commitments to the overall project. Assess whether you could use an effective facilitator who is leveling any disparity of power (or perceived disparity of power).

Trust – Make sure the agenda is clear, and that people can trust that the purpose of the meeting has been stated, and that the decisions made will be honored.  Trust needs to be evident among the leadership, it needs to be demonstrated in how work is done, how words are spoken, and how the results are accounted for. People need to also trust that they can share ideas without negative consequences.

Communication is key to almost everything we do and collaboration is no exception. I suggest that you take a pulse from the collaborative group on how the meetings or work is going. Be creative in new approaches to collaboration. There are a whole set of free online collaboration tools that can make distance collaboration a lot more fun and appealing than email too! Yes, I said free. If the group energy is lagging introduce new meeting styles like liberating structures ( or something similar. Invites guest speakers to bring new ideas or perspectives to the group. One participant had a great suggestion that all too often we speak in lingo and acronyms. When meeting with your stakeholders and outside partners ensure that you take the time to be clear, and to use language that is inclusive and understood by everyone.


As you build a collaborative partnership, or make a conscious effort to be collaborative in your projects, remember to celebrate your successes along the way! One energetic woman in our group in Michigan suggested stating the meeting off with listing off the positives… what a great idea! Let everyone know what’s going right and build on that. Child support professionals are incredibly passionate people so tap into that and ensure that you are celebrating the diversity of perspectives. These celebrations will be a good use of time, help expand turf and encourage inclusiveness, build trust and encourage open communication. 

If you would like us to help you build a strategy for Collaboration, contact us.