How to know effective collaboration when you see it

Sensemaking / How to know effective collaboration when you see it

Leave job titles at the door. Trust and personal exchange are the order of the day, says Anna Warrington of Forum for the Future.

18 Jul 2011

Leave job titles at the door. Trust and personal exchange are the order of the day, says Anna Warrington of Forum for the Future.

It constantly surprises me that stories of big buyers squeezing suppliers are so rife. Competition and contractual edge may have tradition on their side, but there are other ways to work together – both in the supply chain and out of it – with benefits all round. So how do we know effective collaboration when we see it?

Since 2005, Forum for the Future has been working with the Royal Academy of Engineering to bring engineers (sparky newcomers and established directors alike) together to solve particular problems. They come from across the board – from urban planning and construction to rail to water to roads. The programme, Engineers of the 21st Century (E21C), has thrown up some real insights into what works and what doesn't – and from that we've drawn three absolute 'musts'.

Top of the list is trust. Without openness and honesty between the people and organisations involved, a project often misses the mark for all involved. Organisations need to know they are equal partners in ventures; otherwise the same old gripes about power balance get in the way. An independent facilitator makes a big difference here – and this is a key role for Forum for the Future.

Abstract image of effective collaborationThe second must is getting inspired and imaginative together. If partners co-create a project or solution, the buy-in will be high, and the process will foster lasting mutual respect. So the starting point for Forum's project work is always a challenge to be solved, not a set solution. We try to bring together people from different disciplines with contrasting perspectives to spice up the ideas pot. And, almost without anyone noticing, we encourage people to leave job titles and seniority levels at the door.

And lastly, the individuals involved need to see what's in it for them – on a personal level. Altruism and wider benefits for the organisation may play a part – but this can sit alongside a boost to their own career, skills and professional contacts. In an E21C project, the senior-level steering group act as mentors, not managers for once, and we make sure everyone gets to know each other, sharing skills and building stronger relationships.

The result is that each organisation gets far more out of it than just the delivered solution. They get the confidence to address problems in new ways. Given the scale of the challenge, the more effective collaboration the better.

Anna Warrington works on sustainable business models and supply chains at Forum for the Future.

Image credit: DrAfter123/istock

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