Courageous Collaboration: An Indispensable Tool for Sustainability

By Kathy Miller on December 5th, 2016

Over the past few years I have had many conversations concerning how to address the challenges that are impacting the sustainability of our planet. Some focused on the role of corporate leaders. Others concerned organizational cultures. Still others pertained to developing and implementing strategies. While all of these discussions were stimulating, one in particular stands out. It was a panel discussion, and the topic was courageous collaboration.

Previously I had equated collaboration with teamwork. I had assumed that both required skills but not necessarily courage. However, as the panelists described these relationships, I began to see the role that courage plays. The collaborative endeavors described spanned many boundaries and included cross-organizational relationships. These collaborations require more than teamwork.

Collaboration and teamwork are not exactly the same. While both involve cooperation and coordination, teamwork more often involves individuals with distinct roles who come together to achieve a known common goal or outcome that is clearly envisioned from the outset. Teams are likely to have leaders who can guide or direct the work and mediate disputes.

On the other hand, collaborations rest on partnerships of equals with roles that are fluid. While collaborators likely share goals, they are not necessarily working towards outcomes that are clearly defined from the outset. Rather they most likely engage in a creative process that may lead to results that none imagined in the beginning. And the collaborators make their own rules and mediate their disputes themselves. Consider Lennon and McCartney or Jobs and Wozniak as examples of how collaborations work and what they can produce at their best.

Boundary-spanning collaboration is imperative for finding solutions to the complex problems that we face as we work towards a more sustainable world. No one organization or sector is likely to come up with answers to the most difficult challenges. According to the Center for Ethical Leadership, the nonprofit that first used the phrase “courageous collaboration,” these collaborative relationships are courageous because they involve the following:

  • Trust – Collaborators must relinquish the all-too-frequent belief that the other groups are the enemies. And they must put aside their own selfish interests if they are to solve problems together. Moreover, to maintain trust, they must be capable of entertaining disagreements and addressing conflicts.
  • Risk-taking – Since the solutions aren’t clearly defined in advance, each collaborator must be willing to take the risks that this uncertain path presents. Even trusting each other presents some risks.
  • Collective Creativity – The collaborative process will be messy at times. The collaborators must be tolerant of ambiguity and willing to engage with others as equals even when they feel stuck.

Boundary-spanning collaboration can be difficult at times. However, these relationships can produce magic – recall Lennon and McCartney. And if we are to make substantial progress towards ensuring that our world is sustainable, a little magic can’t hurt.