Collaboration or Collective Impact – What’s the Difference?

Understanding the Difference Between Collaboration and Collective Impact

Have you ever left a meeting feeling it was a waste of time? Have you been in a meeting or on a team where everyone is playing nice, but nothing is accomplished? Conversely, have you left a meeting feeling satisfied and highly productive? Have you experienced collaboration or collective impact? What is the difference?

Which is Better – Collaboration or Collective Impact?

The first two questions above are examples of collaboration. When working in collaboration, we convene around a topic, program, initiatives or problem. Some may or may not participate in the discussion. Individuals have something to prove –prove we are the subject matter expert, or that we are smarter or superior to others. Information is withheld. This is an engrained culture of maintaining silos, only providing information on a need-to-know basis, feeling threatened and/or scared of being replaced if we share our knowledge. Fear of appearing inferior drives this behavior.

Collaboration is not part of what we do, it is in addition to our normal work. We advocate for ideas, protect our turf and push our own agenda. Ultimately, not much actually gets accomplished when we collaborate, except giving the impression that we are trying to get along. We often feel like the meetings are a waste of time or that nothing happens as a result of all of these meetings.

Collective impact (CI), however, is the magic sauce that can move mountains. It is not easy to achieve. CI happens when we set aside our ego, agendas and turf to work together for the greater good and make things happen. We improve the work when working in CI because it is what we do, not in addition to what we do. Members advocate for what works, regardless of who came up with the idea.

We are often told we need to collaborate with others. If we truly want to change something, especially anything complex in nature, we must ultimately reach collective impact. Yes, we must start with collaboration to begin the conversations. We cannot reach CI without collaboration and collaboration can exist without reaching CI.

How Do We Go From Collaboration to Collective Impact?

To achieve CI, we must first build trust and create a safe environment where we can be vulnerable. We must have difficult conversations about hope and fears for the future. We must find common ground to help us relate to one another and see each other as people, not the enemy. It may be necessary to share what each group needs from the other group.

Only when all of the participants feel safe can the group reach CI, make significant change happen and achieve the unthinkable. Structure and alignment are necessary and all five elements must be present:

Common agenda

One key to get there is to have a neutral facilitator. By design, facilitators must remain neutral. Facilitating a meeting may be viewed as pushing your agenda unless the group is working from a place of great trust. Ask someone with strong facilitation skills to get the conversation going.

Shared measurement

Determine as a group how success will be measured. For fairness, all parties should have one-agreed-upon measure to track success.

Mutually reinforcing activities

Most people dislike icebreakers and team building activities. However, these have a specific purpose. To be effective, select activities selected based on the intent to make them mutually reinforcing to:

  • Get everyone’s voice in the room
  • Build trust
  • Find common bonds
  • Recognize similarities

Continuous communication

Ensure a summary is sent to everyone as soon as possible after the meeting. Discuss communication expectations and frequency to prevent misunderstandings. Ensure all participants receive the same information at the same time to prevent a sense of “haves” and “have nots.”

Backbone organization

This is the team responsible for supporting the event. It should include the facilitator(s), project lead and sponsors. The project may require a charter to ensure everyone has a clear understanding of the history, scope and intent.

Charice Pidcock is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Megan Manfredi

Interesting take on collaboration. I have never heard of collective impact before but will definitely take a harder look at my collaborative meetings and see how they can push more toward CI.

Sherie Sanders

Great post Charice. I would have to say that most of the meetings I attended were just collaboration, for exactly the reasons you mentioned. The environment was not safe enough to do anything but go beyond the motions!

Gabrielle Wonnell

Great piece! So many of the collaborations I’ve seen go awry look just like you describe. Usually the failure is driven by resource scarcity when “partners” compete for the same funds.

Rick Pfautz

Good stuff and well explained. I’d not heard of CI but will definitely add it to my communications toolkit. Thank you for the information and inspiration!