The Potential Costs of Collaborative Work
Often, collaborations are formed without any thought to the potential negative consequences that might ensue. Without consideration of factors that may produce such negative consequences, issues may emerge as organizations face internal changes during the partnership. This activity helps participants consider challenges from an outsider’s perspective.
Read the dilemma and answer the questions that follow.
Jim is the president of Education for Quality, an organization that researches the nation’s best education practices to help all schools attain excellence. A few years ago, EfQ was given the opportunity to work with EdFirst, a leading organization in education reform that specializes in helping schools use technology innovatively. Jim did not hesitate, as EdFirst was known as a very forward-thinking and powerful group and partnering with them would help EfQ work with a much wider scope of schools and have more monetary support. They went into a partnership without any particular direction or a clear division of labor and no clear articulation of the goals of working together. As a result, Jim spent a lot of his energy simply working to hold the partnership together. He explains:
These are all forces that take collaborators in divergent directions. And what I discovered was that what I had put together was an organization with enormous centripetal tendencies … if you follow me. And you can keep that together for awhile. It takes an enormous amount of energy, which I tried to do, and the more energy I put into that, the less energy I had available to pay attention to the people we were trying to help.
EdFirst was evolving as an organization during the collaboration, growing quickly and working in new locations and at different levels, which added in unforeseen challenges, including shifting budgets and manpower. Once engaged in the partnership, Jim was reluctant to let go, as the opportunities it provided for impact were large. He strived to make the relationship work. Eventually, EfQ and EdFirst had to part ways as Jim could not find a balance between keeping the partnership running and focusing on his own work:
Generally speaking, I think people have the view that collaboration is costless. The more of it you have, the better, with no downside. And that’s not true. Collaboration is actually very costly.
Follow-Up Questions (to discuss together):
1. What would you have done in Jim’s place?
2. How could have some of the issues Jim faced be avoided? Should he have avoided the partnership in the first place?
3. What are some helpful resources, strategies, and skills to employ in order to resolve this situation? Do any of these supports exist?
4. When should Jim have drawn the line between his own work and keeping the partnership moving?
General Questions to Consider as Potential Collaborators or Active Collaborators:
1. What measures should be taken at the start of collaboration to ensure that both organizations know the direction of the work?
2. How can changes within one organization be addressed?
3. How can an equal division of labor in the operational side of the partnership be maintained?
4. How can you exit a collaboration in the least damaging way?