The Collaboration Commandments

Suzanne_Smithby Suzanne Smith, Social Impact Architects This post by Suzanne Smith, Founder and Managing Director of Social Impact Architects, originally appeared on the organization's weekly blog, Social TrendSpotter.   

Collaboration is one of the rules of the social sector game in the 21st century, but are we making progress as a sector because of it? In our blog on the Activity Trap, we discuss that sometimes “producing a lot of activities can lead us to falsely believe that we are consequently making an impact.” So, we ask the tough question – are collaborations working for us or just a lot of activity? In our experience, we get half of the equation right (collaboration = activity + behavior). People commit to collaboration for all the right reasons – they want to create better outcomes for clients and the community and have the best of intentions. We have created comprehensive lists of activities or conditions needed. However, the other half of the equation is the tricky part – we also have to understand behavior change and how to productively work together to create value for everyone. So, we have endeavored to create The Collaboration Commandments, which speak to the behaviors needed for productive collaboration:

  • Thou shalt not use the name “collaboration” in vain:  We often use the word collaboration, partnership, and cooperation interchangeably, but they actually mean different things. In addition, based on past experience, collaboration may mean different things to different people. When you are starting a group, it is important to define what you are trying to achieve (e.g. common vision), but also to have each party define their definition of collaboration and decide on a common definition for purposes of the group. People often differ on a range of behaviors – informal vs. formal relationship, levels of disclosure and transparency, decision rights (consensus vs. majority), and expectations of effort. While having these conversations upfront may seem tedious, it creates a shared taxonomy and will lead to healthy conversations.
  • Thou shalt add value individually and collectively: As stated previously, the only reason to use collaboration as a tool is that it will add more value to the collective need, but also for each individual. Ask yourself: What does value mean to each individual? Can you quantify it? How do we create value for one another? How can we keep a two-way balance in value creation? The answers to these questions will vary. Some are happy to collaborate, but want their time to be valued, so meeting management will be key. Some will value progress, so an early win will be important. Some want to be acknowledged and appreciated for their role, so celebration and credit are key.
  • Honor thy competition: As we have substantiated in our previous blog on coopetition, we think it is critical for the sector to embrace that the social sector’s natural state is competition (for limited funding and resources) and collaboration is a tool to work together to make the pie bigger. However, in collaborations, we need to go one step further and work on ways to co-exist and create a more productive state. This means we need to adopt the “progress vs. niceness” mentality (see our 2014 trend blog on this subject) and communicate with each other frankly about boundaries, culture differences, and rules of engagement. Even in the for-profit sector, competitors collaborate – there is a reason Pepsi and Coke are never on sale at the same time at the grocery store.
  • Seek first to understand then to be understood: Borrowing from the late Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits, we often give this advice to our clients. He notes that everyone has their own frame – we interpret (and misinterpret) everything said based on our own experience. To overcome this bias, we need to ensure that we understand the other individual clearly – ask clarifying questions and uncover root causes of behaviors rather than only reacting with our point-of-view. This allows you to have an open mind and will cause the other individual to feel heard. This virtuous cycle will then lead to shared understanding and positive problem solving.

You may have noticed by now that we didn’t use a common behavior connected with collaborations – trust. In our opinion, this is the ultimate one needed in collaboration. However, it is achieved through repeated actions and is built over time. We believe that if both sides of the equation (activity + behavior) are satisfied, trust will naturally happen and, if done well, will grow and lead to even higher form of collaboration.

As with all our work, we are constantly evolving our thinking based on our work with the social sector, including many of you. We welcome your input as TrendSpotters – positive and constructive on The Collaboration Commandments.


Suzanne Smith is a serial social entrepreneur and bridges many disciplines as a coach and consultant to social sector organizations as Founder and Managing Director of Social Impact Architects and Co-Founder of Flywheel: Social Enterprise Hub. She also educates future social entrepreneurs as a frequent guest lecturer at campuses across the country and as Adjunct Professor at the University of North Texas and Research Fellow at the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University. She is also a leading author, blogger (@socialtrendspot), and top-rated speaker. You may subscribe to her blog, Social TrendSpotter, here.

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