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Tools You Can Use

How to "Nimble-ize" a Collaboration

Nimble Collaboration: Fine-Tuning Your Collaboration for Lasting Success

Three Key Strategies of Nimble Collaborations
Why Structure Is So Important
Ten Principles of Resilience

Additional Resources
Results of our Reader Survey


From Vince Hyman, former Publishing Director, and Becky Andrews, Marketing Manager, Fieldstone Alliance:

IN OUR LAST TWO ISSUES of Tools You Can Use, we asked you to fill out a reader survey. Thanks to all of you who did! Among the questions we asked were what topics you most wanted us to cover. The second most requested topic was “collaboration.” Therefore, this issue is adapted from Chapter 3 of Nimble Collaboration: Fine-Tuning Your Collaboration for Lasting Success, by Karen Ray, pages 56-58. Whether you’re participating in a collaboration or are a consultant to one, we hope you find the following principles useful in creating a collaboration that sees real change.

Three Key Strategies of Nimble Collaborations
While collaborations can produce results that your organization can’t achieve alone, they are complex and can mean frequent, sometimes frustrating meetings, arduous task completion, and snail-paced decisions. Nimble collaborations, however, are based on results that are clearly defined, relationships that are deft, and a structure that is resilient, leading to productive action.

To help you “nimble-ize” your collaboration as quickly and efficiently as possible, author Karen Ray advocates three key strategies:

  • Focus on results
  • Shape relationships
  • Structure for resilience

Use of these essential strategies predicts the difference between success and business as usual. They offer the most direct route to turn a cumbersome collaboration into a nimble collaboration.

In this issue, we’re focusing on the third strategy: structure for resilience.

Why Structure Is So Important
Collaboration is intricate work that occurs in the middle of a rapidly changing set of mandates, citizen interests, and funding. It’s easy to get bogged down, especially if you are trying to change a system deeply steeped in bureaucracies. You need a platform that supports proactive thinking in dynamic circumstances and quick decision making that keeps the partners involved. You must first shape the structure, just as a skilled shipbuilder crafts a sound hull.

A nimble collaboration is built elastically on a firm foundation so that it can deal proactively with the changing environment. The following ten principles help ensure that your collaboration survives the fantasies of policy makers, the vagaries of funders, and the inconsistencies of collaboration partners.

Ten Principles of Resilience

1. The leadership of each participating agency energetically supports the results the collaboration aims to achieve.
Leaders and board members are keenly interested in results and want to know how the work is progressing. An annual report from the collaboration is not enough. The leaders of each partner agency understand and buy into the mission, values, and intended results of the collaboration.

2. There is equity—not equality—of organizational power in the collaboration.
Each organization that has something to contribute to the issue has a role in the collaboration. Some organizations have a bigger role or more influence than other partners, but there is space for each player in the game. Partners treat each other with respect, impartiality, and fairness.

This principle recognizes that not every organization is the same; not every partner is an equal. Some partners are closer to the collaboration’s central effort, and some make contributions and take rewards from a more distant position. The collaboration’s work is planned to account for these differences.

3. Systems are changed as individual organizations change themselves internally.
Wise collaborators strive for permanent systems change by demanding that parts of a system change. Each partner organization modifies its own policies, procedures, protocols, and priorities in the context of other agencies in order to create the best system for consumers. Collaboration leads to mutual institutional renewal.

4. Leadership is shared among organizations.
There is no one leader in a collaboration, no single “big boss.” All the partners are held accountable for results. Leadership may shift from agency to agency in a planned manner as the work progresses, and leaders are accountable for changing and renewing their own agencies in the context of the whole system. No agency in the collaboration is “better” or “more deserving” than any other, and each agency has a special contribution to make to the effort. Collaboration is the ultimate democracy.

5. Conflict is expected and is managed effectively.
A key function of governance is to manage conflict. Strategies for resolving conflict are spelled out, and there is a clear list of who makes what decisions.

6. Collaboration is transparent and does not create a new level of bureaucracy.
The collaboration does not constitute another hoop for local organizations to jump through in order to get funding. Likewise, collaborations do not create another door consumers must pass through in order to get service or product. A collaboration is not a new agency; it doesn’t need a letterhead, an address, or a name. A collaboration doesn’t hire staff, although it may support a temporary function called “coordinator” until the collaboration partners define how existing organizations will absorb functions that are necessary to sustain the collaboration.

7. Each agency in a collaboration is accountable to its own leadership and its own constituents.
Though a collaboration exerts influence, it has no power to force an agency to do something. Funders are not the final authority; they are simply equal partners, no more and no less.

Collaboration provides individual agencies with the opportunity to create policies for themselves that make sense in light of the bigger picture. Collaboration prompts and undergirds these institutional changes, with executives or board members finalizing changes their agencies make to achieve the goals of the collaboration.

In collaborations with public sector organizations, elected officials are ultimately responsible for changes to public institutions. Nimble collaborations keep elected officials informed about the collaboration’s progress. As potential changes to the public institutions are set out, the collaboration goes to the county board, school board, city council, or other body to gain approval for the changes.

8. Decision making becomes faster and more effective as power to make decisions is delegated to appropriate subgroups.
Consumers and constituents should be in charge of the services and goods they buy or the things that happen to them. Good decisions are made as close to the consumer as possible. This may mean, for instance, that staff members who deliver direct services get involved in decision making in ways that are new to an agency.

Decision-making structures and processes are closely tied to trust. The more partners trust one another, the easier it is to delegate decision making.

9. Collaborations are usually impermanent.
Partners come together to achieve results they cannot achieve alone. Successful collaborations accomplish something; they may change the system they are part of, refurbish organizations, generate new products or new resources, or involve citizens in new ways. The permanence of the change is assured when individual organizations of the collaboration prove that they have changed internally to accommodate better ways of doing business.

There are two exceptions to this principle: A collaboration becomes permanent when law demands it, or when the issue the collaboration addresses is so complex that a generation of work will be needed to make the change.

10. Documentation supports resilience.
Written agreements spell out the vision, mission, and strategies of the collaboration. These agreements can be refined and rewritten as the work matures. Individual agencies change internal documents—such as standard operating procedures, job descriptions, and budgets—to reflect the new ways of getting things done.

Share the ten principles of resilience with the senior managers and boards of all partner agencies in the collaboration. Promote nimbleness through discussions of these principles, so that leaders can see how collaborating is a unique way of doing business.

Additional Resources
List of collaboration resources

Results of our Reader Survey!
Thanks again to all of you who responded to our survey. Click here to see the results.


Vince Hyman & Becky Andrews
Fieldstone Alliance

And—a final farewell from Vince

July 25, 2007


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