How to Give Meaning to Collaboration

To increase and foster collaboration has been on the public sector agenda for a few years and is now again described as essential when moving forward into the next decade. Why collaborate can seem obvious, for its impact on improving services and outcomes, but the real question is what collaboration is. The concept has appeared to be removed from day-to-day practice and remains a general idea without any consistent meaning. From there, it is hard to implement collaboration in your teams and organization: if “why” is the reason and motivation to deliver, “what” is the objective and end-goal to reach. But collaboration does not need to remain conceptual, and ultimately thriving for successful collaboration allows giving it back some practical meaning.

What successful collaboration should include:

So, what does successful collaboration look like? According to our research on success stories and studies, both in the private and public sectors, several common denominators can be identified and are inherent to how we define successful collaboration:

  1. Common purpose

Collaboration between least expected organizations can become obvious once a common goal has been defined. Clarifying what is everyone’s objective, and how they intersect in some aspects, will drive productive and meaningful collaboration and allow collaborators to thrive. This will also help to decide which collaborative model is the most adapted to achieve your objectives in a manner that benefits all.

  1. Communication

This one seems obvious but could not be more crucial. Communicating about challenges faced, as much as successes, is essential when moving toward a common purpose. The Cambridge dictionary defines communication as ‘the exchange of information and the expression of feeling that can result in understanding’. Understanding all stakeholders involved allow your relationship to function and achieve productive and sustainable collaboration to happen. This implies implementing proper mechanisms.

  1. Participation & Engagement

Collaboration means having all parties involved engaged. No one can collaborate on its own, and collaboration does not require the same type of participation and engagement as in teamwork. The relationship is less hierarchical and more about mutual support. This means identifying the right people to drive the right behaviours.

What could impede successful collaboration:

Knowing your objective does not mean that everything will go according to plan. As such, it is essential to identify common denominators that engender unproductive collaboration to address them in time.

  1. Resistance to change

It is human: in the face of change, we tend to begrudge. Changing our way of doing things takes time, and the uncertainty that change will be for the better also leads us to be over-cautious. For that reason, the risk and end goal need to be shared, so that collaborators can move forward. If people do not need to share the same methods, there should at least decide the general direction together.

  1. (Lack of) Power-sharing

Multiple studies point it out: an imbalance of power often leads to unfruitful collaboration. This can be because when power is not shared equally, it can lead to resentment and internal conflict, but also decisions are taken more unilaterally and provoke more resistance. If it can sometimes be useful to have a leader setting the example, collaboration should remain all about equal participation.

  1. One-size-fits all approach

We love a good magic recipe that will tell us exactly what to do and how to do it to deliver the best outcome. The reality differs in truth, and there are no “best approaches”, but rather “best practices”. It is important to identify each stakeholder’s mandate and culture to create the inertia for collaboration. Some common themes can be identified in different success stories, but it should still be taken as guidance rather than ‘the only way’. Understanding your organization and team’s characteristics is as much important as understanding the ones of your potential partner. This will help design the best approach for both of you, based on a range of best practices rather than on a single model.

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