1. News >
  2. What does effective collaboration really look like?

What does effective collaboration really look like?

June 2016

In short, if it feels easy then it’s probably not collaboration

Collaboration is part of a continuum of inter-organisational networking. The continuum includes other approaches such as coordination and co-operation. Each way of working together requires different commitments of trust, time and resources and different models of leadership.

Collaboration poses a major challenge to the traditional ways of making policy and delivering services and confronts conventional departmental cultures of ‘we know what’s best”.

Effective collaboration is hard yet important

Morrison Low’s review of a central government sector comprising eight agencies highlighted that real collaboration is hard. Our review found that despite senior executives committing to working collaboratively on “sector priorities” this was not translating across and down through their agencies.

Agency specific priorities and resources had not been aligned to the agreed sector priorities. And yet almost every central and local government client we have worked with has told us that effective collaboration is either important or part of the way they do business.

Government expects more collaboration

The Better Public Services (BPS) Taskforce’s report (2011) identified the need for more horizontal collaboration across agencies and sectors if better policy advice and services to citizens was to result. As the Taskforce’s report noted, historically state services have struggled to deliver collectively and other reviews have identified difficulties within sectors in making sectoral approaches work.

The BPS Taskforce’s report also noted that sectoral groupings were one way of achieving horizontal co-ordination. The report did not favour structural models of integration, leaving agencies to find virtual models that would work within the existing public management framework with vertical accountability and funding structures.

The current government has made it clear that it expects central and local government agencies to work together to deliver better services and to work equally well with business and non-governmental organisations. This is especially the case in addressing social and economic disadvantage. Collaboration is key if these expectations are to be met.

Effective collaboration requires change and a long term view

Our work has also highlighted that a major barrier to collaboration is that many agencies consider that effective collaboration can be undertaken without the need to change existing organisational structures, governance or their leadership models. In short, agencies consider that collaboration can be undertaken “on our terms” and without the need to give anything up. We have also observed that this approach is more prevalent the larger the organisation is.

Another important observation has been that it is almost never the case that the intrinsic motivations are equal and that generally the benefits arising out of collaboration do not fall proportionate to the parties’ contributions. Put another way, real collaboration often requires one or more party to the venture to “put in” with no expectation of a direct benefit out of the venture. Instead, their “benefit” accrues from the collective outcome(s) they have contributed to.

In summary, our research and analysis of projects that have involved successful collaboration leads us to conclude that the necessary elements to successful collaboration include:

  •  An agreed common purpose
  • Shared power
  • Trust
  • Strong leadership
  • Good communication

Strong and flexible leadership is key

Leadership is critical but often collaborative efforts will stumble at the first hurdle in deciding who is in charge, or who is leading the collaborative venture. Leaders who have demonstrated the ability to set up successful collaborative projects have told us that, to be successful, there are a number of things they have learned. These include:

  • Being disciplined and focussed on a very few high gain leverage points (priorities). This creates the unifying purpose
  • Being just as focussed in investing in the underpinning social capital of the organisations. If people don’t know each other it’s hard to build trust
  • Senior leadership time is needed to build an understanding the drivers of member agencies and of the personal motivations and characteristics of their colleagues
  • Very frank conversations built an underlying level of trust between CEs which models the expected behaviours for others
  • Expect taking collective decisions about the resources of member agencies to be hard and to create friction. If there is no friction then probably true collaboration is not happening
  • Up front agree how the collaboration will share information, resolve disputes, and give participants the benefit of the doubt
  • Understand that leadership will shift as different talents and skills are called for at different phases of the collaborative project.


Morrison Low has significant experience in advising clients on collaboration including models of leadership, governance, organisational design and programme management.