We live in a world where the public sector requires collaborating across organisations and teams of different sizes in order to be effective.
This means dealing with people and all their complications. Good news! You’re probably already collaborating all the time across boundaries. There’s no significant difference between the skills that allow you to share information or get assistance from one or two people, and those which facilitate large, complex projects between multiple organisations.
It’s true that when you do something on a large scale, the scale of planning and coordination required increases faster than the size of the project itself, but these are skills you can master. So just do it! Reach out to people with your needs and your ideas even if you don’t work with them.
Building collaborations that last
You’ll be astonished how often just making the request is enough to get you somewhere.
I’ve had several relatively rare jobs in government — change management, employee engagement, and communications analytics — and each time I started, I tried to find others who had my job and borrow their best ideas.
Every time, plenty of people were happy to spend an hour or two of their time helping someone at another organisation for free, and even more were eager to hear what I’d learned from their colleagues.
There’s an incredible power and value that comes from having lots of connections and information and you can create that for yourself and your career anytime.
But it’s also the nature of large organisations to put up barriers, intentional and not, and many people are too busy or overloaded with information to push against that inertia, no matter how weak it might be. Luckily humans are naturally curious and helpful — if you catch them on a bad day, remember that’s one person on one day, not everyone — and they want to collaborate.
Yet, if it was always that easy, we’d live in a different, better world.
Life is full of things that are simple and commonsense that we don’t do. That’s why we buy weight loss books. Some (on a bad day it might feel like most) public sector organisations and teams have a culture that discourages collaboration. Sometimes the personalities or history gets in the way and makes it harder than it needs to be.
Leaving aside legitimate reasons not to collaborate, like legal or secrecy issues, that you can’t address yourself, what should you do to make collaboration happen? To build it and make it last, you need to be willing to invest the time, you need to use empathy, and you need to be able to turn relationships into something with structure.
Changing culture takes time
You need numbers on your side, and while leadership helps, the key ingredient is patience. Everyone in the organisation creates the culture together in many small decisions made every day. That gives you power to change things but also means change will come slowly. You’re working against human nature.
As tribal animals, human beings can only hold so many relationships in our heads (150, according to Dunbar’s Number). Once that number is exceeded, we start to see ourselves as being “members” of smaller groups even if we’re all on the same organisational chart.
Empathy is your not-so-secret weapon
I preach the value of professional empathy regularly.It’s a skill everyone has, and everyone needs, but which is rarely formally connected to the situations where it’s most useful.
Instead, we’re left to develop and utilise it on our own. That wouldn’t be acceptable for other key job skills, so it shouldn’t be here either. Not only will empathy make you a better person, not only will it improve the morale and culture in your workplace, but it’s absolutely necessary to be an effective collaborator.
f you can’t understand what drives others to seek or fear collaboration, you can’t convince them to collaborate. That’s not warm and fuzzy thinking, that’s realism. Hostage negotiators and spies use empathy to do their jobs — so can you. Of course, sometimes it will be tough. I used to complain about slow HR processes and non-functional IT systems all the time.
Some days I still do — empathy is a lifelong journey. But I’ve worked alongside HR and IT teams and seen the constraints they work under. Understanding what’s going on in their head has made me more effective at working with and persuading HR and IT teams ever since. You can push through your frustrations and use empathy to create collaboration.
As collaboration grows, you need structure
Relationships will always be the most important driver of collaboration. However, once a collaboration is structured, people more readily accept it and it will live beyond the individual relationships that created it.
If you want to collaborate on something large and/or long-term, you’ll need to build a structure to take sustain it with the same inertia that slows collaboration early on. I see a lot of smart, capable public servants who haven’t mastered the basic project management skills needed to break down a task into steps and accomplish it, find the tasks needed to solve a problem, or assemble their tasks into a program others can do.
There are plenty of models, but the first and best thing to do is to start practicing!
You can go too far with structure if you create plans that are more complicated than the need or meetings that don’t serve a concrete purpose. But prepare yourself now to build a legacy of collaboration that will last beyond your own career.
I hope public sector collaboration gets easier as new electronic tools are adopted and the generations who grew up in a networked world rise as leaders. All of us can build a culture of collaboration which will unleash more power to serve our citizens.
Just following your instincts — just being a human being — can be one of the savviest things you do in your career.