Two Steps to Strategic Collaboration: How to Be More Collaborative Without Scheduling One More Meeting

Feb 12, 2018 by Amy Leo, Jessica Ziegler Comments (0)

No More Meetings GraphicCollaboration is the component of the Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA) Framework that we tend to skip over because it seems like common sense. After all, most of us are required to work closely with lots of people in order to do our jobs. Our days are filled with meetings.

But I recently found myself puzzling over how to do it right. On a recent Reflection Friday, my team took time to think about the state of our collaboration. While the results of some very productive collaborations came to mind for me, such as this new interactive map of 150+ CLA Case Studies (thanks to my teammate Ford Tordiff!), I also recognized some gaps, such as initiatives that I needed to learn more about and projects I wanted to weigh in on. Looking around the room at my teammates, I worried that my need for collaboration might tax their already full schedules. How can I ensure that my collaboration adds value? I started having flashbacks of the Harvard Business Review article we discussed in our monthly book club: Collaborative Overload. As the title suggests, too much collaboration can lead to a decline in productivity and, eventually, burnout. I didn’t want to be the cause of that!

Fortunately for me, my colleague Jessica Ziegler has spent a lot of time thinking about strategic collaboration and has developed two steps to guide decision-making. Here’s how I used these steps to help me collaborate with my teammates without fear of burdening them.

A quick note: This blog post addresses the why and how of collaboration. If you’re looking for guidance on the who, check out this set of tools on USAID Learning Lab.

Step 1: Identify the objective of your collaborative relationship.

It may help to complete this sentence, starting with the WHY first:

In order to ________, I/we need to engage _________ when _________.

As Communications Specialist on the USAID LEARN contract, one of my responsibilities is to share the tools, research, and expertise we develop with USAID staff and implementing partners via USAID Learning Lab. I had heard rumblings that some of my colleagues were developing new tools for the CLA Toolkit and I wanted to learn more about what they were creating and when it might be available so that I could plan to integrate it into my content calendar.

So, in order to share new CLA tools in a timely fashion, I need to engage the CLA toolkit team when they have information that can help me fill in my content calendar.

Here are some other examples of objectives where collaboration can add value—In order to:

  1. Build buy-in: When other stakeholders will be impacted by a decision or initiative
  2. Pool resources/skills/knowledge or avoid duplication: When working on similar or reinforcing objectives
  3. Learn from or share lessons: When others have experience in the area or issue at hand that we can learn from or vice versa
  4. Leverage social capital: When others have connections or influence we can leverage
  5. Crowdsource innovation: When we need an injection of new ideas or a different perspective
  6. Ensure sustainability and local ownership: When others will need to carry on an initiative

My example fits best in #2.

Step 2: Identify which type of collaboration fits your needs.

Here are six types of collaboration with examples from the USAID context. Keep in mind that most engagements will include a mix of the following, either simultaneously or phased.


Graphic of collaboration type - Joint Ownership

Co-designing and co-implementing where collaborators share (relatively) equally in the responsibility and buy-in

  • Co-creation through Broad Agency Announcements  
  • Cross-sectoral, integrated programming and management   
  • Project management teams
Graphic - PartnershipMore formal, longer-term interaction based on shared goals, decision-making and resource contributions
  • Global Development Alliances and other Public-Private Partnerships
  • Learning Networks
  • Interagency programming
Type of collaboration - coordinationSystematic adjustment to align work for greater outcomes and/or less duplication of effort
  • Donor Coordination Groups
  • Joint work planning among implementing partners
  • Interagency working groups
  • Team retreats
  • Joint site visits
Type of collaboration - information exchangeBasic communication to share or elicit information
  • Most staff and partners meetings
  • Email
  • Newsletters
Type of collaboration - conveningCreating opportunities for and facilitating connections among others to enable their further engagement
  • Hosting conferences
  • Match-making and making introductions for new partnerships
Type of collaboration - consultationAs-needed interaction on a specific document, process or activity to get input, feedback or advice
  • Design workshops
  • Key Informant Interviews
  • Focus Groups
  • Advisory Groups
  • Brainstorming sessions

I started with a quick information exchange. I swung by my colleague Meg Ahern’s desk to find out if she was the right point of contact for the CLA Toolkit and to confirm that they were, in fact, planning on releasing new CLA tools in the coming months. Next, I scheduled a consultation to talk through her team’s roadmap for producing the CLA tools. During this conversation, I learned that their release schedule was based on when staff might need the tools, e.g., staff transitions when Foreign Service Officers rotate. I built these approximate timelines into my content calendar. In the coming months, our collaboration will take the form of coordination as I develop messaging and graphics to go along with the tools.

Okay, so I did have to schedule an additional meeting, but I went into it sure that the collaboration added value. Meg was glad I approached her about sharing new CLA tools because how useful is a tool when no one knows about it (see Pooling resources/skills/knowledge or avoiding duplication above)?

And, if at first you don’t succeed…

Adapt, adapt, adapt. Don’t hesitate to adapt your method of collaboration if it isn’t yielding your desired result. If that weekly meeting is a waste of everyone’s time, cancel it! For example, our team’s weekly stand-up meeting has taken many forms over the life of our contract. The goal of the meeting, which takes place at 10 AM on Mondays, is to check in on how everyone is doing, share contextual knowledge about our work, and identify potential areas of connection. In the first iteration, when we were a team of 10, each person had two minutes to share their priorities for the week. As the team grew to 15 and we all learned how long two minutes feel, we changed the time limit to one minute. This felt too rushed and we realized it wasn’t helping us achieve our goals, so we adapted to add more structure. Instead of a time limit, each person responded to a series of prompts. These prompts have changed over time but have always included a one-word check-in, one priority for the week, and one learning from the previous week. Now, as a team of 30+, we’ve found the right formula to help us start the week on the same page. But, I won’t be surprised if that formula changes again before our contract is over. As with anything, being strategic means keeping your end in mind and experimenting with different approaches to find the one that helps you get closer to your goal.