What does good collaboration look like? Over the last three years, with Argosy Foundation support, Professor Howard Gardner and his colleagues at the Harvard Graduate School of Education have studied collaboration in non-profit education. They have sought to identify the factors that increase the likelihood of “successful” collaboration, as well as those that serve as indices of less successful or unproductive collaborations. They seek to understand what it takes to carry out meaningful and influential collaborations—rather than “coblaboration”—an umbrella term used to designate gatherings with only the superficial features of genuine, deep efforts.

A strong stimulus for this work comes from the team’s own less-than-ideal experiences. Immersed for decades in the world of non-profit educational research, they have often found themselves “dating” other apparently like-minded organizations, trying to evaluate and assess the caliber of our potential collaborators. (Undoubtedly, the collaborators have been engaged in a parallel exercise.) Much of this examination centers on the issue of commitment—what is the rationale for the commitment, how deep is it, can it withstand turbulence. Understanding the expectations of both the individuals and the institutions, identifying the barriers and recognizing the appropriate collaborative design that fits the personalities and goals of the project is essential for success.

This research has two main strands. One involves in-depth interviews with veteran educators who have been engaged in multiple collaborations. The other strand is a focused study of a recently launched collaboration among three major institutions of higher learning. This research has demonstrated that “good collaboration” only really happens when individuals and groups come together committed to meet a genuine need, recognizing that their work together can be far better than what they can each do alone. “Good collaboration” is more than “a sum of its parts.”

A major goal of the project is to use the findings to help individuals and groups—current and future collaborators—build and sustain promising collaborations. Over and over again, they heard from participants that they need further and deeper communication with potential and current collaborators—they need to move past a ‘date at the movies’ or a ‘one night stand’. Participants lament missed opportunities to engage in discussion about short and long term goals, purposes, and intended outcomes. Furthermore, collaborators often struggle with radically different institutional cultures as well as interpersonal challenges, among them power issues, poor communication skills, lack of firm and competent leadership, and sheer dishonesty. If these features sound familiar to you, there is much to talk about!

To meet this need, they are in the process of developing a “Good Collaboration Toolkit.” They envision this Toolkit as helping potential collaborators do due diligence before a collaboration is formally established; help collaborators engage in honest conversations about topics that matter, and other forms of exchange as they are working together; and facilitate helpful debriefings at the end of the collaboration, whatever its successes and shortcomings.

Specifically, the Toolkit will address, in order, 4 major objectives:

1) Identify and evaluate individual motivations, goals and values for collaboration;

2) Engage in discussion with potential collaborators about whether and how to initiate a productive collaboration;

3) Talk candidly and productively with current collaborators when confronted with obstacles and roadblocks along with potential strategies for surmounting issues;

4) Debrief after a collaboration, with unguarded discussions about the outcomes, both positive and negative and lessons learned.

Each of these “stages” is important in establishing productive and successful collaboration. The team has begun to develop materials and to “pilot” items with individuals and organizations engaged in collaboration. This feedback will be invaluable if Gardner and his team are to fashion a Toolkit that will help people build and nurture “successful” collaborations.

They are eager to include you in this work. Please feel free to contact them at wendy_fischman@harvard.edu

The Good Collaboration Project

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