Some people clean their houses as they look to make fresh starts. Ridding themselves of the old as they look towards the new. But I'm cleaning out my brain and I'm not looking to rid myself of the old, instead I'm looking back at work I loved for inspiration, and guidance, as I think about what comes next. Recently I shared a piece titled "Zen and the Art of Team Building," which was published back in 2002 by the Society for Nonprofits, and today I thought I would share a piece titled "A Collaboration Checklist: 10 Questions for Success," that was published by the Society for Nonprofits as well. You can find a PDF of this article here, but as with that earlier piece, I thought I would share it in its entirety in this post, which I have done below. If you have any questions or feedback, please let me know, and if you just want to talk about the themes captured therein and how you might apply them in your work, please let me know that too, because I would love to discuss this with you. Thanks.
A Collaboration Checklist: 10 Questions for Success Redux
You know that funders and donors expect you to collaborate. And you know there are great benefits to collaboration, ranging from increased access to information, tools, and resources to enhanced efficiency and effectiveness.
Much as you believe in collaboration, however, it’s hard. You find yourself struggling more than you should.
Why? Because you rarely slow down long enough to ask yourself what makes a collaboration succeed.
To assure a successful collaboration, ask yourself these questions:
1. What Can You Learn from the Past?
• What can you find out about your co-collaborators? How have they acted in previous collaborations? Were they easy to work with? Your co-workers and peers can provide insight and help you prepare for the collaboration. The more you learn beforehand about other members of the collaboration, the more successful you will be.
• Has this type of collaboration been pursued before? If so, what can you learn from that experience? What were the successes, and how were they achieved? What were the failures, and how can you avoid repeating them? This last question is especially important when you want to engage individuals or organizations previously involved in a similar effort that failed. They will want to know how things are going to be different this time, and you must be able to tell them.
2. What Is the Climate Like?
• How supportive is the environment? Say you want to build a drug treatment center in a residential neighborhood. Do you know whether the stakeholders in the community — including people who work in nonprofits, those in the business community, and those who live in the area — support collaborations in general and this effort specifically?
• Do you have the political and economic resources needed to support this effort?
• What are the logistics of getting together with other members of the collaboration? Is there a place in the community where you can meet if needed? Is it comfortable and accessible? Are there places to park? Are there impediments that may keep some people from coming to the meetings?
3. How Well Are You Communicating?
• Do you use a variety of different communication channels, including websites, Listservs, newsletters, minutes, and social media?
• Are you prepared to take people to lunch to sound them out about how the collaboration is progressing?
• Is communication between members open, honest, and respectful?
• Are calls and emails returned promptly?
• Do you have good communication both within your organization and between your organization and others in the collaboration?
4. What Do You Want to Gain?
• How does your organization want to benefit from the collaboration? Have you shared that information with your fellow collaborators so they are clear about why you’re participating?
• Do you know what other participants hope to achieve so that you can address their needs?
5. Is Leadership in Place?
• Have you designated someone to take charge? Is someone ready to organize meetings and remind people to fulfill the tasks they’ve agreed on? When things get bogged down, is someone prepared to step forward and challenge participants to make a decision?
• Have you pinpointed allies in the community and at your organization who are willing to tackle obstacles, bureaucracy, and red tape on your behalf?
6. Are You Prepared to Combat Impatience?
• Have you accepted the fact that building consensus, acquiring funding, and obtaining organizational and community support for the collaboration takes time?
• Have you identified which outcomes will be short-term and which will be long-term? Are you ready to build early successes into your efforts?
• Do you forge camaraderie and a sense of accomplishment by celebrating successes as they happen?
7. How Effective Are Your Meetings?
• Have you chosen someone to facilitate every meeting? This doesn’t have to be the same person every time, but you must identify a facilitator who will move things along and guide the discussion.
• Is the meeting agenda planned and shared with participants in advance?
• Do meetings start and end on time?
8. Are You in Sync?
• Do you and other members of the collaboration share the same vision? Do you have common goals for pursuing that vision?
• Does everyone agree on where the collaboration is going and how to get there?
• Have you made sure that everyone involved in the collaboration shares a common language and understanding of terms? Have you defined the meaning of acronyms and buzzwords? Are you careful not to assume that everyone has the same idea of what collaboration and facilitation mean?
9. Are the Right People Included?
• Are the key players and decision-makers in the community — regardless of organizational affiliation — at the table? Have you taken the time to brainstorm who they might be?
• Have you included staff from different levels of all the participating organizations?
• Are consumers of the services included in the collaboration?
• Might there be too many people at the table? What feels manageable to this group?
• Most important, have you included representatives from the groups, communities, and organizations who stand to be most profoundly affected by this effort?
10. Are You Taking Full Advantage of Formal Tools?
• Do you have a written agreement, laying out expectations for participation? Have all participating organizations approved and signed this agreement?
• Have you created ground rules everyone can agree to, such as the importance of being on time for meetings? Have you established prohibitions regarding abusive language and behavior? Do you revisit these rules when people break them?
• Do you make time for assessment? At the end of meetings and phone calls, do you make a point of asking people how the collaboration is progressing? Do you plan formal assessments once or twice a year to evaluate progress?
Revisit these questions often to be sure you’re on course. Share them with other members of the collaboration. If you ask the right questions — and commit yourself to the right answers — your collaboration will be on its way to success.