Musings on the attributes of successful collaborations

Attributes of successful collaborations

Problem/opportunity Definition

“What problem are you solving?” Take the time to define the common problem to solve. We frequently leap to solutions before adequately identifying the problem that we share. One of the first things that comes up and probably one of the more important – and sometimes least developed – is the need to first identify and then to solve a common problem.

Collaborations are an opportunity to solve a problem, or a challenge, or a puzzle, which is clearly and easily relatable and “re-statable” to the needs of all of the participating institutions. These are opportunities to accomplish together what we can’t do alone.

In sustained collaborations everyone around the table – all of the roles represented –clearly see the value in pursuing the opportunity. It is clearly articulated and easily communicated to others, whether they are potential supporters like foundations or future partners or participants. Getting to that clarity may take work but it is worth the effort. Don’t gloss over this step.

Problem Scope

“What can we realistically accomplish?” The opportunity must be is scoped appropriately: it is big enough to require collaboration yet small enough to actually accomplish the objective, to really get things done. Defining the problem and scoping it well helps us to understand the limits of what we can actually accomplish.


Sustained collaborations often have the benefit of senior sponsorship whether from the president or the provost or an outside agency like a foundation. The defined problem is clear and senior leadership and other sponsors can easily get behind it in a productive and persistent manner. While not a guarantee, sponsorship will be helpful in weathering organizational and funding storms down the road.


Successful collaborations have one or more public champions who are willing, able, and eager to go to bat for you and your collaboration.  Champions need not be a part of the collaboration proper.  Champions can be found in campus presidents, provosts, deans, CIOs, Librarians, technologists, faculty, corporate and industry leaders. The extent to which they can easily re-state the problem definition and opportunity, the easier it will be for them to remain enthusiastic champions.

Structured external evaluation

In an extended, sustained, collaboration it may make sense to retain an external individual or agency to document progress. Having the benefit of an unbiased eye to review your program plan, objectives, and scheduled outcomes can provide utility during and after the program.  When the program is grant funded, scheduled reports from an external reviewer can inform grant reports. Developing a library of documentation can be helpful in subsequent project planning as well as in future fund raising.

Path towards meaningful inclusion and expansion

Sustained collaborations are extensible; they are inclusive and expansive to a larger community, beyond that of the founders. Successful collaborations go beyond the individual and the immediate. When thinking through the problem definition and scope, include the means to create a conduit to present to your work to the world through case studies, articles, essays, workshops, summer institutes, etc. Build this potential into the program plan and schedule the resources to execute a communication plan.

Operational adaptability

In sustained collaborations the work should become more than a project temporarily layered over pre-existing responsibilities of an individual. It becomes programmatic. It evolves away from a project, a temporary exploration of possibilities, and becomes a program that is somehow a part of the organizational DNA. On the other hand, projects in which the work remains isolated to an individual personality, or is persistently separate or special – somehow in addition to the normal grind – will have a much more difficult time being sustained. In these situations participants get busy with other things, or they leave, or energies are re-directed from above or sideways or below. This is where sponsorship and clearly defined problems statements come into play. If the project is attached to a personality, or on top of, or in addition to pre-existing workflow, decisions about continued participation in such efforts inevitably get made based on other priorities. The work is in danger of being deemed a distraction rather than fundamental and programmatic. Is your organization capable of adapting to this commitment?

Organizational capacity

“Are you actually organized to accomplish this?” Before committing to a collaborative effort, review the problem definition, the scope, and the project plan to identify required organizational resources and departmental relationships. Inter-institutional collaborations are frequently initiated in a flurry of enthusiasm. Review your capacity to deliver in relation to reviews of problem definition, scope and organizational adaptability.

Trust and vulnerability

All of this requires trust. It can be a challenge to be vulnerable enough to work together in a public manner, show your work before it is “finished,” and allow others to work collaboratively on it, or even see it, before it is “polished” to your satisfaction. It can be hard for some to let down their guard and allow others to re-work their contributions, and insert their own in its place. To really work together requires that we are vulnerable and that requires a safe environment.  We need to be able to trust in order to achieve that level of honest collaboration.

Transparent technology

In the case of pedagogical and scholarly collaborations it is wise to work to ensure the supporting role of technology. Keep technology placed appropriately, not necessarily in the background but not on center stage either. Technology tools change quickly. Don’t make it about the tools. Be cautious about leaping to a technology solution before you have fully defined the problem. Don’t get stuck because you committed to a technical solution to a pedagogical problem.


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