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How to Make Collaboration Work — 7 Lessons from the Field

7 lessons from the field.

Pyxera Global

Collaboration is an unnatural act between non-consenting adults,” says Mark Kramer, Co-founder of FSG and co-author of the landmark HBR articles Creating Shared Value and The Ecosystem of Shared Value. That’s why partnerships are so hard to get right.

Last week at the Global Engagement Forum: Live, hosted by PYXERA Global, changemakers from all sectors convened to talk about the sticky issue of “collaboration”. Experts agree that in order to solve systemic challenges facing our shared planet, we’ll need to develop new levels of partnerships that tackle the most challenging issues we’ve ever faced. “Collaboration takes the head of a sage, the heart of a visionary, and the feet of an explorer,” said PYXERA Global CEO, Deirdre White.

So how do you create collaborations when our natural tendency is to not? Here are the 7 key lessons from the Forum:

1. Align on problems, not solutions

Collaboration Canvas — a roadmap to align on the issue to solve for.

Richard Crespin, CEO and Founder of CollaborateUp, recommends that partnerships start around a problem, not a solution. Aligning on a problem helps ensure long-term buy-in, whereas trying to align to an established solution has misaligned incentives and ownership. The “Collaboration Canvas” offers a framework for mission-aligned groups to openly discuss the problems they’re working to solve and barriers they’re facing. Finding commonality on these issues enables potential partners to identify the resources needed, ideas to overcome the barriers, and ultimately the engagement strategies needed from key partners.

2. Invest in learning upfront

You are what you measure.

Before partnering with an organization, it’s vital that all stakeholders understand the incentives of their partners. As you lay the groundwork, take the time to understand what each partner is hoping to get out of solving the problem. The easiest way to do this is to research and discuss the success criteria for the partnership. Financial incentives tend to speak the loudest, so make sure to be transparent — and ask for transparency — to understand the financial incentives of potential partners.

Federico Waisbaum, the Director of Puerta 18 in Argentina, emphasized that to truly help in the field, you must first understand the field. Federico was one of eleven hosted contributors at the Forum — sponsored individuals brought from geographies around the world to ensure the collaboration was grounded in realities in the field. Waisbaum’s organization empowers youth and young adults to learn “power skills” like communication, adaptability, and leadership in addition to technical skills in information and technology. To achieve their goals, he emphasized that the right partnerships, like the pro bono support Puerta 18 received from SAP’s Social Sabbatical, can be truly catalytic. His advice to other corporations that want to partner with entrepreneurs:

To start, first take time to understand what your potential partners do in the field and HOW they do it. If our mission, processes, and cultures align with what you are hoping to achieve, then we want to collaborate and can move quickly because of that initial shared understanding.

3. Design partnerships for scale


Like products, partnerships can also scale. And, like building new products, building partnerships can take a lot of time to launch and get right. If you need to build a new collaboration from scratch every time you need to move to a new area or expand your audience, you’ll be stuck in an inefficient mire and won’t be able to reach your organization’s potential.

As Stanley Litow, Vice President of Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs, IBM and President, IBM International Foundation, shared “To achieve and then scale results, you must build replication into your model, and test and iterate quickly to achieve it.” And Stanley knows a thing or two about creating effective partnerships. He’s the architect of such projects like P-TECH which helps youth transition from school, to college and career and the IBM Corporate Service Corps which sends over 500 IBM employees every year to participate on skills-based community service projects.

Stanley suggests that all parties — public, private, and nonprofit — take a lesson from business here which, by design, is “inherently skilled at bringing solutions to scale with efficient process, tools, and management.

4. Address all pieces of the problem by partnering with businesses

When only philanthropic groups come to the table to solve a problem, they each tend to focus on only one specific outcome — solving hunger for a specific population, empowering people of a gender, or protecting a single species or region. There is nothing wrong with this, and in fact, we need passionate people working on all causes, but to solve systemic issues we need to focus on more complex systems, and this is where business come into play. Per Mark Kramer,

Business has a powerful perspective on how to put all the proper pieces together — and this is one of the key elements that can be put together by business leadership.

5. Measure What Matters

“What I’m interested in is linking together stories about peoples’ lives — how they experience the everyday — and analyzing that through data analytics in a way that’s meaningful to see if we are making a meaningful impact,” — Dr. Diana Caley, Food Security and Monitoring and Evaluation Advisor, Crown Agents.

Picking the right metrics, and communicating those clearly from the start, is critical to long-term success. Your stakeholders, especially those with a financial stake, will hold you to what you measure. At the same time, be willing to flex. As a program evolves, donors and implementers learn about realities in a community they are trying to serve and the established metrics may need to change.

As Stanley Litow shared

“If you attempt to scale a challenging solution, it may not get results in three years. You need the patience and resilience to stick to solving systemic challenges. To justify this long-term investment, make sure to get clear alignment on short and long-term metrics from all key stakeholders.”

And a word of caution, here. Ask any changemaker working in the field on last-mile implementation and they’ll warn you against breadth metrics. Organizations working in the last mile have to deal with complex systems, rigid environments, and challenging cultural and behavior change issues. The only way to overcome these is by focusing on depth metrics.

As Victoria Badía, founder of Nutre a un nino in Mexico, hosted at the Forum by PepsiCo, shared with me that,

“A well fed family is not a number. It’s a sign of impact. To engage communities, you first need to start by helping just one person. To make change you need to go deep, but unfortunately this deeper focus sometimes scares away international partners who want big numbers.”

6. Check your bureaucracy luggage at the door

At the Forum, I had the chance to sit with Luvuyo Rani, Co-founder & Managing Director of Silulo Ulutho Technologies in South Africa, who was hosted by SAP and partners with SAP in the Social Sabbatical program. Silulo Ulutho Technologies has a fantastic system of IT training centers empowering youth and entrepreneurs. Before he was recognized as the Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year, however, it took a while for Rani’s organization to grow. He credits the value of international skills from volunteers as being critical to growth. But he also provides guidance to international groups, even large corporations, that want to engage with social enterprises in the field:

Entrepreneurs move fast. But big organizations [those with typically more resources] tend to have more bureaucracy and take too long to respond. To make an impact in the field, you have to adapt to the culture of the field.

7. Stay aspirational, but be ruthlessly honest

Dr. Sheldon Himelfarb, CEO at Peace Tech Lab, advised in a panel on Social Design and Entrepreneurship that to create partnerships, you “must be ruthlessly honest. Can a project be sustainable and scalable? Does it really make an impact?”

In inspiring closing words, Dr. Himelfarb shared that when it comes to solving the most pressing challenges that we’ve been forced to address, “We’ve never been more capable [in achieving them]. If we can make a military complex, we can surely create a peace complex.

Pyxera Global: Forum participants make real-time actionable commits, following two days of ideation.

Partnerships might not be natural for public, private, and nonprofit organizations, but they are critical to helping us achieve a world free of inequalities and injustices. Remember:

  1. Align on problems, not solutions
  2. Invest in learning upfront
  3. Design partnerships for scale
  4. Address all pieces of the problem by partnering with businesses
  5. Measure what matters
  6. Check your bureaucracy luggage at the door
  7. Stay aspirational, but be ruthlessly honest

Do you have other thoughts for creating impactful collaborations? Let us know in the comments below, and make sure to follow PYXERA Global for updates about other events and leading content that helps create truly impactful global partnerships!

Originally published at on April 12, 2017.

Originally published at

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