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Cross-agency collaboration is a bit of a hot topic these days. We need to work together across agency boundaries so that we can deliver integrated services that are designed around people's needs rather than around the structures of government. Collaboration is widely seen as the best way to do this, but what exactly is collaboration and how can we tell if we're doing it well?

I've been lucky enough to have had many opportunities over the years to participate in collaborations (a few great, some good and some really not), and to observe and support other people engaging in collaborative activity. At the moment, I'm contributing to the work of the Lab+ team, which has collaborative activity at its core. I have Many Thoughts about collaboration but I'm going to try to exercise some self-discipline and stick to a few key points and observations. If this sparks some interest, please comment on this post. I'm keen to hear your thoughts and experiences with collaboration, particularly in the New Zealand public service.

What is collaboration?

Lots of us have participated in collaborative activities without necessarily realising we were collaborating at the time. Anyone who has been in a sports team, a play, a choir, a cultural group, a musical group or band, a gaming guild, etc. knows what it's like to contribute to something, which is much bigger than the sum of the parts.There are many definitions for collaboration - this one in Wikipedia is pretty good:

Collaboration is a purposeful relationship in which all parties strategically choose to cooperate in order to achieve shared or overlapping objectives.

For me, collaboration is simply when two or more people work on, and are jointly accountable for, a shared outcome. Having a shared outcome is important for two reasons:

  • achieving more than one person alone could
  • getting something done – because you don't collaborate for its own sake.

The point of collaboration is to create something, tangible or intangible. It's not just about getting together to brainstorm ideas or to communicate with each other. The most effective collaborations I've seen have been where each person on the team:

  • was clear about their role and what they were there to contribute
  • had mutual respect for all other members
  • was striving to reach an outcome that was equally important to everyone
  • was willing to work through the tensions and creative conflicts that are inevitable with collaboration.

Interestingly, these were also the collaborations where the end result was not specified before the teams started work. Instead, they were given a broad outcome to achieve and were given leeway to work towards a result that they defined over the course of their collaboration.

The Lab+ team is experimenting with two big ideas:

  1. Working in a new way that:
    • brings together user-centred design, agile practices, diverse professional disciplines, people from public, private and community sectors, software engineering, and the use of evidence and analysis
    • co-locates a team in a physical space conducive to collaboration and experimentation
    • is supported by skilled lean and agile coaches
    • will achieve more effective, scalable and sustainable service design and delivery than what can be delivered from within government agency boundaries.
  2. Government as a Platform: building a systemic change that enables an open ecosystem to deliver integrated services for people by making data, content, transaction systems, business rules and common components of government programmatically available.

A recent blog post, What is the Service Innovation Lab? covers these ideas in more detail.

Collaborative activity underpins all of the Lab+ work and it's not always an easy experience. As team members, we've had to become used to the recurrent feeling of discomfort that is part and parcel of different professional disciplines working together and challenging each other's ideas and perspectives. The huge upside of this discomfort is the learning that has emerged, which benefits our work as well as our professional development.

Two key aspects of collaboration

I see two aspects necessary for effective and sustainable collaboration: collaborative behaviours, and enabling environments (ie work structures) within which collaboration can thrive. This post focuses on the first aspect.

Collaborative behaviours

Effective collaboration requires these types of behaviours and attributes from participants:

  • openness
  • trust (which sometimes has to be given before it can be earned, especially at the beginning of a piece of work)
  • reciprocity
  • reliability
  • evenness under pressure (i.e. no dramas)
  • critical thinking
  • imagination
  • flexibility (of thought and action)
  • comfort with periods of ambiguity
  • willingness to surface, and deal with the discomfort of, creative conflict (which is inherent to collaboration)
  • willingness to let go of ideas and solutions which prove not to be valuable in the face of better thinking and evidence
  • grit and determination.

Having a good sense of humour also helps, especially when things don't go according to plan. Which is always.

What isn't collaboration?

Collaboration is not the same thing as coordination, cooperation and consultation, important and widespread in the New Zealand public service though these activities are. That's because coordination, cooperation and consultation can take place without the additional shared accountability for outcomes which is a feature of collaboration. It's been a real pleasure seeing more and more public service colleagues demonstrating collaborative behavior (the Lab+ team's work being just one case in point); but because collaboration isn't yet the dominant mode for cross-agency work, the impact is somewhat limited. For us to move towards systematic collaboration, the enabling environment is going to need some changes. It will be interesting to see how public service work structures can flex to accommodate collaboration at scale.

Lab+ is housed in the Service Innovation Lab, which is an experiment carried out under the leadership of the ICT Partnership Framework’s Service Innovation Group. It's managed by the Service Innovation Team in Department of Internal Affairs in partnership with Assurity Consulting.

Check out earlier blog posts about Lab+ and the Service Innovation Lab.

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