Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Organizational Culture and Successful Collaboration

With tighter budgets and fewer resources, more nonprofits are looking towards collaboration as a strategy to help leverage resources and increase organizational effectiveness. Collaboration can often result in greater mission impact or better leveraging of resources. However, if they are not well-conceived and properly managed from the beginning, such “collaborative” relationships can also be a drain on organizational resources. There are two critical pieces to setting up collaborative relationships for success: ensuring that each involved organization has an organizational culture that supports shared work, and having deliberate discussions in advance around any areas where a shared approach or values may not inherently exist.

Initiating a collaboration can sometimes feel like a first date. Each organization wants to present its best face, its strengths and opportunities. This dynamic can sometimes lead to glossing over important cultural issues that will impact the long-term success of a collaborative relationship. Bringing up difficult conversations early on might mean there would not be a “second date” and the organizations involved do not want to risk that kind of potential rejection. This dynamic often results in organizations holding back information or preferences because they fear that discussing such things could derail progress. Identifying what is important to each organization is a critical, but often forgotten, step in ensuring successful outcomes through collaboration.

When CRC works with organizations in developing collaborative relationships, we often start by identifying what we call an organization’s “collaborative culture index.” Using this tool, we are able to get a sense of how well an organization’s culture will support collaborative efforts. Depending on the results, we can help identify some areas for deliberate conversations and negotiations with partners before a collaborative relationship starts.

As part of developing a collaborative cultural index for an organization, CRC assesses the areas described below. We consider the level of agreement with these statements to be an indicator that an organization’s culture will generally support successful collaborative relationships. Areas of less agreement can also help identify places for deliberate discussions and negotiations prior to initiating formally or informally shared work. How well do these statements describe your organization and staff members?

  • As an organization, we like to learn about new approaches to doing our work.
  • As an organization, we are comfortable with change.
  • “We do things our way and our way only” does not characterize our approach to our work.
  • We are not typically driven or motivated by competitiveness or by the desire to outdo organizations for the sake of “winning” or looking better.
  • We make decisions in a collaborative manner within our organization (for example, staff members are consulted on all major decisions and their ideas are taken into consideration).
  • We are comfortable sharing the spotlight and not being out front on everything we do.
  • We are comfortable with giving up some control over projects in order to gain the benefits of working together with other organizations and groups.
  • I can think of at least three examples of successful collaborations that we have been part of in the recent past.
  • If you asked our partners in previous collaborations, the vast majority would agree that our projects have ended well and accomplished our shared goals.
  • Staff members have personality traits that promote good working relationships, especially with those outside of our organization. These traits include effective communication skills, the ability to proactively communicate expectations, a willingness to be flexible in terms of approach, the ability to establish and maintain trust, and general friendliness.
  • We have a history of seeing projects through over time.

Generally, organizational cultures that are more collaborative in nature are more effective in collaborative relationships with other organizations. These cultures tend to have diffused decision-making structures, history of working well with other organizations, and see added value from working with others. If you find that most of these statements reflect your organization and its practices, there is a strong likelihood that your organization’s culture supports effective collaboration. However, if these traits do not describe your organization, formal collaborative relationships may not be a good immediate strategy for your organization or may require some significant preparatory steps for your organization to be a good partner. This kind of organizational self-reflection is very important to ensure that collaboration is a good strategy for you, and that you will make a good collaborative partner.

If your organization is in the process of developing a collaborative relationship, we encourage you to consider these tools as part of designing your collaboration. If you need more help, please check out the resources below or contact Sarah Fischler at CRC to see how we can help your organization successfully use collaboration to increase your mission impact and to more effectively leverage resources.

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