What does ‘collaboration’ really mean to people?

When people use the word ‘collaboration’ they often mean very different things and they are also very likely be approaching the collaboration in very different ways.

This is something that I have very rarely heard discussed in practice but it fundamentally shapes the way that people and organisations work together. Unless we share the way we think about collaboration — and the nature of our basic motivations to collaborate — we may struggle to collaborate in a way that is truly effective.

In my experience, this early work is almost never done — this needs to change and a ‘Bristol Scale’ has offered me a typology to enable me and the people i work with to be explicit about not only what we what to achieve but how we need to collaborate to achieve it.

On the basis of the work that I have done in places like Bristol (hence the name), I have done a basic codifying of the types of collaboration that I think I have seen operating in practice. As you will see they are very different propositions with fundamentally different starting points and motivations.

My hypothesis is that the reasons that collaboration in often so difficult is that the participants are in practice framing the work in very different ways and want different things from it. This isn’t just an issue of a lack of ‘joint vision or common purpose’ — what we see in practice are fundamentally different motivations clashing against each other.

Photo by Freysteinn G. Jonsson on Unsplash

The first enabler of effective collaboration is ensuring that we know what the participants understand by the term — and how they are motivated.

Different perspectives can coexist, but they need to be visible…

Hence, the ‘Bristol Collaboration Scale’ — it’s a work in progress and shared here. My motivation in developing this is threefold:

  • To develop a tool that i and other can test in practice — now.
  • To hear from others about how this codification might be developed.
  • To reclaim the ‘Bristol Scale’ (medics will understand that joke….)

The Bristol Scale — C1 to C5

When I work with people now I use (implicitly or explicitly), the following framework to understand their motivation to collaborate.

C1 — The ‘what’s in it for me motivation?’

I collaborate because I/my organisation benefits. My motivation is personal.

C2 — The ‘I need others to do something that will help me’ motivation.

I collaborate because I wouldn’t be able to achieve something my org values without others. My motivation is organisational.

C3 — The ‘I need others to help me achieve a wider goal that I can’t deliver myself’ motivation.

I collaborate because I want to achieve a broader societal/system goal and need others to help. My motivation is system based.

C4 — The ‘collaboration is an essential capability we need to develop’ motivation.

I collaborate because I believe that it’s an essential approach (in abstract) not something whose utility is limited to solving a particular problem. My motivation is building place capability.

C5 — The ‘I collaborate therefore I am’ motivation.

I collaborate because Iam fundamentally committed to working that way. My motivation is civic and social — my organisation is a means to that end.

How many of these types of collaboration do you recognise? How do you or your organisation approach collaboration? Are the people with whom you are trying to collaborate coming at it in the same way?

Ask yourself these questions — there are crucial if you want to collaborate successfully.

In terms of application , the scale enables us to:

  • Clarify the approach — and motivation — that is shaping the involvement of individuals and organisations
  • Be able to discuss what type of collaboration is needed to achieve different outcomes.

This second point is key because we often try to achieve very complex societal or place based work that requires C4 or C5 type collaboration working with organisations and people who are still working from a C1 perspective.

This is a recipe for frustration and failure — we need to be as clear about the type of collaboration that we seek to practice as we are about outcomes or objectives of a project. If we are not, we are setting ourselves up to fail.

And this doesn’t just have implications for the project in hand — it implicitly undermines the credibility of collaboration as a way of working and makes successful collaboration in the future more difficult.

So this is something we need to get right — because the longer we fail to address this issue the tougher we make it for ourselves in the future.

I work to make places better for the people who live in them. Collaboration and leadership is how this happens. I write about these things.