Collaboration can be a powerful tool, enabling primary producers to work together and enhance their business position by creating opportunities that could not be achieved alone. But working collaboratively is not always a golden ticket to business success, because collaboration is not easy to achieve, and it’s even harder to sustain. Collaboration is high risk for high reward.
Working collaboratively is not business as usual; it requires a different way of thinking, behaving and working. While intuition and common sense can go a long way, it is helpful to have some information to guide your decision-making and actions.
The following principles for successful collaboration are informed by a previous project funded by the NSW Environmental Trust on landholder collaboration and work undertaken by the Farming Together Program. While presented sequentially, they are not sequential in application. They should be applied in an interconnected manner and will need to be revisited as a collaboration adapts and evolves.
1. Focus on building and strengthening relationships with fellow collaborators
Strong and trusting relationships are the foundation for successful and sustained collaboration. In the early days of the collaboration, work with people with whom you already have a positive working relationship. This arrangement will likely support positive future experiences.
It is essential to prioritise time for building and strengthening relationships with all members, including understanding each member’s different personalities and strengths. This relationship-building can be undertaken through formal means, such as workshops and meetings, or informal activities, such as social events.
Building relationships, especially in the beginning, is time well spent in the long run and will set the tone for collaboration in the future.
2. Establish a clear collective purpose, collective goal/s and an agreed way forward together
The next steps in supporting collective action are finding collective agreement on the issue/ opportunity being addressed, unifying the collaboration around a clear purpose and vision, and identifying an agreed way forward together. To do this, a safe space where different ideas can be heard and considered, respectfully, must be built.
The vision or mission statement should also be revisited regularly to ensure everyone is still on the same page with the same values.
3. Set the conditions and processes to support working together effectively
Deciding how to work together on the agreed issue or opportunity involves: determining membership and developing rules around onboarding or exiting members, setting the terms of engagement or guiding principles of behaviour, and establishing an agreed process for decision-making.
Some of the questions your group should consider while establishing itself include the following: Will each decision be by consensus or consent? Or majority rule? Will decisions only be made at a meeting, or can decisions be made outside of face-to-face meetings? How will the group handle objections and disagreement, both reasonable and unreasonable? How will you keep a record of the decisions made, and who will be responsible for implementing these decisions?
4. Develop a management plan with established (but flexible) roles and responsibilities
Once the conditions and processes to support working together effectively are established, you now need to think about the regular tasks that must be completed to ensure your collaboration ‘works’. Whether it’s monthly meetings, board meetings, annual general meetings (AGMs), or setting up a budget, undertaking monitoring and evaluation or writing up your annual report, knowing who will undertake the governance and reporting tasks is key.
If you don’t plan for this work, you may find that your group becomes overwhelmed and unable to develop focus when it’s time to carry out its regular activities.
Often three to four ‘champion’ members step up and act as a core team coordinating activity. These champion roles are critical functions of effective and successful collaboration. However, it is worth recognising these champions often go above and beyond and, if not supported, can suffer burnout – especially if they are volunteers. As such, it can be helpful to rotate the key roles within a collaboration over time. This rotation may enhance the effectiveness of the collaboration by bringing new energy to a position because different stages of collaboration will require different strengths and skill sets.
5. Support conflict resolution
Conflict is an inevitable aspect of working with others, and it can be beneficial or detrimental to a collaboration. In many groups, conflict provides an opportunity for growth, change, reflection and rethinking how we do or see things. Often the best decisions and most successful collaborations are those where members debate and speak with honesty. Such groups do not avoid conflict – instead, they manage conflict successfully and use the dynamism and growth it brings to their advantage. For this reason, it is recommended that your group develops agreed processes for managing conflict. Some useful resources for conflict management or transformation might include:
- An agreed code of ethics for how group members interact and speak with each other
- An agreement or policy about the types of behaviour that might result in official warnings or expulsion from the group
- A transparent process for managing conflict between group members, for example, through face-to-face meetings, an informal or formal mediation process, counselling services for affected members, or access to mental health and crisis support.
Don’t be afraid to seek additional professional support early if the established conflict resolution processes are not working.
6. Connect, cultivate and manage relationships strategically
While collaboration can take many forms, people and their relationships are the glue that binds a successful collaboration. Therefore, a collaborative group should nurture and curate these relationships strategically and deliberately, orchestrating how these connections are used to achieve goals. To curate these relationships effectively, groups must first know what connections exist across the network. With this awareness, groups can more easily identify external expert advisors and/ or sponsors/ supporters who are in a position of influence to access resources the collaboration needs.
Some questions the group could ask themselves about their networks of relationships include:
- Whom are we connected to? (…and who is connected to others?)
- How strong are the connections?
- Are these connections over-invested/under-invested?
- What connections are missing? (What new partners does the group need to bring in?)
- Are there connections hindering the group from achieving its goals? (are the any connections that should be cut?)
- Match structure to purpose
Some groups may want, or need to become a formal business entity, while others may not. If your group needs to take out insurance, protect intellectual property or pay wages, an incorporated structure is likely to be necessary. For others, they may want to meet a few times each year to share information and review projects on each other’s land and may not need to incorporate.
Incorporated legal structures such as incorporated associations, companies and co-operatives all involve cost and additional regulation, so understand the advantages and disadvantages of incorporation options before deciding on the structure.
The timing of formation is also worth considering. Sometimes formalising the collaboration through a business structure early can be detrimental to a group that has not yet built sufficient collective commitment. These members may spend most of their time meeting the administrative requirements of the new business at the expense of building foundational relationships, making the collaboration less resilient.
Further details on different legal models are provided in this report’s next section.
7. Know if/when to end things…
A collaboration usually doesn’t continue indefinitely. Whether informal or formal, groups can have an agreed end-point in mind. This might be when the group’s purpose, vision or mission has been achieved, or when the group is unwilling or unable to work towards their goal, or the goal is no longer relevant.
Incorporated entities like incorporated associations, companies and co-operatives (which can, in theory, continue forever) are required by law to include processes in their constitution or governing document for ‘winding up’ the corporation. In addition to these requirements, we recommend ALL groups discuss and develop a clear policy statement about the circumstances that might cause the collaboration to end. This will help your group stay focused on its overriding purpose and understand the potential consequences of conflict, insolvency, poor risk management and other potential issues.
However, just because a particular initiative ends, it doesn’t mean it is the end of the working relationship. The relational capacity built during collaboration and held within that network of relationships is a valuable resource that may be leveraged and reinvigorated if/ when future opportunities present.