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Don’t Let Culture Eat Collaboration for Breakfast

By Amy Celep

Collaboration makes sense. We see daunting social problems in our communities and we realize that we cannot tackle these problems alone. We can, however, pool our strengths and collectively achieve bigger results.

But so often we struggle to realize the potential of collaboration. We create a national coalition, or a state collaborating table, or a local collective impact initiative. We set a bold goal. We determine the strategies that will help us achieve it. We develop workgroups to execute the strategies and we jump into implementation, thrilled by our collective potential.

But as we get into the work, we realize that we are hesitant to trust each other with our data, our financial information, our relationships, etc. And we bump up against the cultures of the other organizations in the group. The mixture of diverse perspectives that make ideas like cross-sector collaboration so enthralling can also wreak havoc on the ability of collaborators to make progress.

Shared Culture: The Forgotten Foundation for Collaboration

As we have worked with and studied collaborations, we have seen many efforts struggle to make progress because they’ve skipped over a critical step: the development of a shared culture.

Participants in collaborations often rally together because of a crisis moment or an exciting opportunity to do more together. In either case, they are focused on the results that may be possible through collaboration. This healthy focus on results combined with pressure from boards, funders, and others, cause many participants to prioritize execution ahead of something as seemingly abstract as “building a shared culture.”

This can be a dangerous orientation. Without a solid foundation, the most elegantly designed and expertly crafted cathedral will collapse. Likewise, the best strategy will quickly crumble if it does not align with the group’s culture.

Strong research exists to substantiate the assertion that culture has a powerful influence on what groups of individuals, organizations, and even nations can accomplish.  At the surface level, culture can be seen as “the way we do things around here.” At a deeper level, we work with our partners to think through strong culture as the intentional alignment of values, norms and behaviors. Here is how we define each:

Values: What we care about
Norms: Rules that define how to live the values
Behaviors: Actions to take that follow the rules

Regardless of how you define it, culture dictates what is possible. Culture will influence how decisions are made, how strategies are evaluated, and how work gets done. Yet, so rarely do organizations take the time to intentionally build a “shared culture” in the spaces where they collaborate. Instead, culture among collaborators generally emerges slowly and often reflects the mistrust and misalignment that exist among the stakeholders.

Strong Shared Culture is Built Intentionally

We urge our partners to proactively prevent the emergence of deleterious shared culture by instead intentionally and deliberately building shared culture. Stakeholders who wish to work in enduring and effective collaboration, must come together with their colleagues and build a solid, shared cultural foundation by fostering personal connections and trust among themselves.  By so doing, their varied perspectives and backgrounds can become assets for one another instead of barriers to progress.

We have found a number of culture-building practices helpful to our partners who are engaged in collaborations. We look forward to sharing these practices over the next few weeks.  We would also love to hear from you about examples of collaborative efforts that have (1) succeeded through intentionally building culture or (2) failed because of a lack of shared culture. Please post a comment below or reach out via Twitter (@WeDreamForward).

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Amy Celep

About Amy Celep

As CEO of Community Wealth Partners, Amy Celep guides the organization’s strategic direction and oversees its more than 20 employees in their efforts to support partners in solving problems at the magnitude they exist. Amy was named to this role in April 2010, and since then has led the organization in developing and implementing a new strategy for greater impact, while achieving 50 percent revenue growth and securing a marquee list of partners. See Amy's full bio

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