Taking the Initiative to Collaborate

May 24, 2010 / General /

Ryan W. Quinn

In one of the multi-organization systems I am working with, the leaders are trying to institute a major system-wide change. Before they institute this change, they want to use a survey to measure their system’s baseline status. The idea of conducting a survey raises all kinds of problems, such as where to locate the survey, how measurements will be taken when the units of analysis in the organization differ depending on who you ask, and what it would take to get people to actually fill out the survey–especially given that there are already almost a dozen other surveys that get conducted in the organization on a regular basis. Much of the content in these surveys overlap, but the surveys are distributed at different times to different overlapping portions of the system with no coordination between them, and so there is little to no collective learning that happens from all of these different efforts.

The answer to these issues seems simple. Why not consolidate these surveys? Remove unnecessary overlaps, conduct the survey once per relevant period, and coordinate contribution and learning efforts between the different, interested parties. This could reduce costs, make implementation more effective, iron our differences in how the organizations conceive of their units, and make communication more succinct. Simple, right?

Time and Politics

While figuring out what the best thing to do for the system is simple, implementing this solution is not simple. There are a number of obstacles to implementation that would exist in an effort to coordinate the survey process, but when I raised this issue with people, two issues loomed particularly large: time and politics.

On the surface, time seems like a big issue: nobody has time, so who can possibly add this work to their schedule. My experience, however, is that while time certainly is scarce, people tend to find time for addressing issues when those issues really are priorities, either by making the time themselves or by using resources to get other people involved in addressing the issues.

Given the cost savings, communication improvements, accountability and learning benefits of addressing this survey issue, addressing this issue ought to be a priority. We know from project management work, for example, that if we address and resolve coordination issues early in a process, we can prevent significant problems and costs from becoming issues in the future. Many of us have a tendency, though, to let the pressures of the present overwhelm the opportunities of the future. These pressures often take the form of politics.

Politics–the wrangling that occurs over the divergent interests and positions of the people who have a stake in a situation–make processes that could be relatively simple quite complex. In the survey situation, for example, each person or group who conducts a survey has a reason why they conduct their survey in their particular way. In some cases, they have built up an organizational apparatus around their survey, putting other people’s jobs at stake in conducting their survey in their particular way. As a result, rather than develop a systematic process that benefits both individuals and the organization, people keep layering new surveys onto the already overweight body of surveys that permeate the organization and nobody steps up to address the situation as a whole.

A Point of Contrast

In another multi-organization system that I work with, I recently met a woman that I will call Cindy who seems unimpeded by political concerns in her efforts to collaborate. Cindy encounters many organizational boundaries that could impede her ability to do her job, but seems undeterred. In one situation, for example, she wanted to work with people in a different part of the system. She did not know anyone there. And some of these people might think that their jobs would be threatened if they worked with Cindy. Cindy was confident, however, that a way could be found to collaborate.

The means to collaboration that Cindy came up with was to approach one of the people, a woman I will call Tera,  in this other part of the organization and to ask for help. Cindy told Tera that she was trying to learn how to use video technology to help her with her work (which was true), and asked Tera if she could record some of the things that were going on in Tera’s workplace. This was unthreatening to Tera, and so Tera agreed.

After making the recording, Cindy sought the help of another colleague to help her make a high-quality video-product of the things that were going on in Tera’s workplace. By doing this, Cindy learned how to use the video technology and collaborated with yet another colleague. Then Cindy gave a copy of the new video back to Tera. Upon seeing the video, Tera immediately had ideas about how the video could be used, and of how video technology could enhance her own work. She asked Cindy to help her with this, and soon Cindy was collaborating with people in Tera’s part of the system.

Cindy’s work has not stopped with Tera, or even with Tera’s part of the system. When she discovered another system-wide problem that existed because of a lack of coordination between people across the system, she found another ally and the two of them invited a group of well-intentioned people from across the system to get together to talk about it. The first meeting was so generative that people went back and recruited their colleagues to come to the second meeting. It looks like a new social movement is being unleashed in the organization.

Social Movements

I am deliberate in my choice of words when I call Cindy’s meetings a social movement. Social movements, like the civil rights movement or the environmental movement or countless others, occur when social movement entrepreneurs (like Cindy) are able to mobilize resources toward some opportunity that create new institutions in a society (like an organizational system). Such movements are often hard to mobilize for political reasons, and successful mobilization generally requires social movement entrepreneurs to be exceptional at collaborating [1]. For example, in a study of the recycling movement, Michael Lounsbury and his colleagues found that recycling as an institution did not take off in society until the movement, which consisted primarily of non-profit organizations, learned to collaborate with for-profit organizations–a collaboration that, at least initially, was very difficult for them [2].

Scholars are beginning to uncover what is necessary for the kind of collaboration that fuels social movements. For example, Neil Fligstein [3] suggests a number of social skills that help social movement entrepreneurs mobilize the resources they need, such as:

  • Setting the agenda with people before they get together to collaborate so that the agenda is not a point of debate when people do get together
  • Taking opportunities as they come, even if the opportunities are unplanned
  • Linking current issues to broad, accepted values
  • Introducing variation into a settled situation
  • Taking a neutral point of view when talking to each side
  • Asking for more and settling for less
  • Maintaining ambiguity
  • Trying five things to get one
  • Aggregating people’s interests to get more people involved

Further, Bechky and O’Mahony [1] found that collaborations in a movement that included open-source and corporate software developers occurred when their governance, membership, ownership, and control processes ensured

  • participation
  • some degree of autonomy and discretion for all parties
  • voice and influence for all parties
  • clarity about goals, interests, membership, and ownership
  • resources sufficient to support the work
  • quality

These are useful criteria to establish and discuss when initiating collaboration.


Politics can be a major obstacle to collaboration, as they seem to be in the survey project. As actions like Cindy’s indicate, however, we often think that political obstacles are more insurmountable than they actually are. When I teach executives, it almost does not matter what topic I am teaching, I end up spending a large portion of my time trying to convince them that they can do things in their organization that they do not think they can do. Like Cindy, we can do them. We need good intentions and a collaborative approach. The real question is not “Can we?” but “How?”


[1] O’Mahony, S. & Bechky, B. A. (2008). Boundary Organizations: Enabling Collaboration among Unexpected Allies. Administrative Science Quarterly, 53: 422-459.

[2] Lounsbury, M., Ventresca, M., and Hirsch, P. M. (2003). Social movements, field frames, and industry emergence: a cultural-political perspective on U.S. recycling. Socio-Economic Review, 1: 71-104.

[3] Fligstein, N. 1997. Social Skill and Institutional Theory. The American Behavioral Scientist, 40(4): 397-405. – Fligstein takes a much more instrumental approach to this than I do, and I thus only include a smattering of his ideas.