Collaborative Practice: From Evolution to Revolution

By Paul McArthur

Picture yourself in a large hotel conference room, wearing your best ‘dress casual’ attire and sporting a lanyard proudly displaying your name and organization to the hundred or so fellow conference attendees. Like most people here, you travelled far and took time away from work in the hopes of developing new knowledge, insights, and connections to advance your work to make the world a better place. In the afternoon workshop, an important theme emerges: the key actors in the system are operating in ‘silos’ and missing opportunities for synergistic, collective impacts. Inspired by this insight, your workshop team frantically scribbles notes on a flipchart and report back to the larger group: “Working in silos is leading us to approach this challenge inefficiently, ineffectively, and is leaving large gaps for those most in need!” Your report back is received with energetic applause and is affirmed by other participants. After some closing remarks, the conference comes to and end, and you begin your journey back home.

As you return to work the next week, you begin to tackle the mountain of tasks you’ve been putting off while at the conference. You wonder “what will happen to all those great insights we wrote on that flipchart? No time to follow up now, off to the next meeting”. Two weeks later, you have the same reflection and come to this realization: you, a self-described champion of collaboration, have returned to YOUR silo, as have many other champions of change that attended the conference.

2016 marked the 30th anniversary of the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion, a charter set in place by the World Health Organization at their annual conference that year. Among others, this charter established the principle of “health in all policies”. Health in all policies asserts that policies beyond the jurisdiction of health affect the health of the population in a significant way. Cross-sector and cross-government collaboration is then, a critical concept in advancing the health of populations. Since the establishment of the charter, I’m not sure how many conference attendees have experienced some version of the story above, but I’d be willing to bet it’s in the six-figure range by now. So why is it that despite our best efforts, we continue to struggle at developing and maintaining effective collaborative approaches to change? From my personal experience, a few themes have emerged that I’m reflecting on as of late:


Competition and collaboration: An Evolutionary Paradox?

As human beings, we are compelled from an evolutionary sense to compete for limited resources: food, water, shelter, jobs… The paradox is that our most robust strategy to survive and thrive as a species relies on collaboration with others.[1] I would say that this same paradox applies to social sector organizations, and helps to answer the question posed above. For their survival, organizations also compete for limited funding and opportunities to make an impact in the field. Sometimes this competition unwittingly holds us back from making headway on our common goals. In his book Systems Thinking for Social Change[2], David Stroh identifies this as a common pattern of behaviour in systems called ‘accidental adversaries’, which tells a story of how promising collaborative relationships can unintentionally deteriorate into adversarial ones, and lead to diminished collective impact.


Image reproduced from Innovation Associates Organizational Learning: in Systems Thinking for Social Change.


Looking at the outside loop, the collaborative relationship starts off with mutually beneficial effects (Organization B supports A’s actions, leading to more success for Organization A, and likewise). However, when Organization’s A’s success decreases, they create a new strategy or fix to improve their own results. Over time, this may lead to an unintended obstruction of B’s success and cause them to shift their strategy in ways that could negatively affect A’s success. Over time, this leads to increasing efforts by both organizations, but less success in achieving the greater common goal.



Getting to a Collaborative ‘Revolution’: Where do the solutions lie?

While the problem may be common, the solutions to collaboration challenges are complex and context-specific. In my experience, one feature of effective collaboration is a significant time investment to develop relationships, trust, and strategic clarity. The core mandates of our organizations define the scope of our work, and if collaborative projects sit outside of this scope, they are likely to be done off the side of our desks, if at all. In their Collective Impact framework[3], Kania and Kramer have outlined the need for a ‘backbone organization’ to do the heavy lifting of collaborative work and to hold the space for it to happen effectively. Without this type of dedicated support, collaborative initiatives are more likely to remain ‘nice ideas’ rather than impactful partnerships.

The WellAhead team has established “increased connection and capacity to advance integration of wellbeing at the practice, school, district and provincial levels” as a core part of our theory of change. As we develop partnerships in provincial/territorial contexts and in the pan-Canadian landscape, we continue to hold important questions: How do we foster effective collaborations? Who needs to be at the table? What specific value can collaboration bring to advancing integration of wellbeing in K-12 education? How do we know if this is making impact?

As we consider where to go next with our strategy and experiments, I am excited to continue my journey in learning about how to nurture collaboration in the field of child and youth wellbeing. What stories do you have about collaborative efforts? What makes them successful or not? What frameworks, tools and concepts have you found useful in advancing your collaborative work? Be in touch with me at .


[1] West, S.A. et al (2011). Sixteen common misconceptions about the evolution of cooperation in humans. Evolution and Human Behavior. Vol 32: pp231-262.

[2] Stroh, D.P. (2015). Systems Thinking for Social Change. Chelsea Green Publishing. Pp 61-64

[3] Kania, Kramer (2011) Collective Impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review.