Taking Collaboration Seriously – where to start?

Let us examine a typical sustainability challenge:

An agricultural commodity is produced in Africa – in a limited amount of countries. As is often the case, small-scale producing farmers are organized in cooperatives, but these cooperatives have competence gaps within their management.  Moreover, there are also discrepencies in the trading and production aspects of this commodity. Many traders bring the commodity to each national commodity board. In one country all commodities needed to be auctioned, in another country they could be auctioned or could be traded directly to the buyers. And at the level of individual farms, practices may not be transparent or may be appalling. Child labor is still common on some farms. The on-farm practices are at the core of the sustainability challenge.

International buyers, mostly companies from Europe or the US, have been buying the commodity without concern for working conditions or child labor on the farms; they either did not know or did not care. On-farm practices went unnoticed until some of the consumer brands were attacked by NGOs for materials produced with child labor. As the issues became publically known, buying companies began to get interested in what happened upstream on the farms.

Fortunately, many buyers invested in projects to help cooperatives or farms learn management skills and ensure that working conditions were up to international standards. In several cases innovative approaches led to significant improvements in the management skills of the farmers and subsequently their income. Some buyers also joined industry-wide initiatives and round-tables to better address various issues and take a more holistic approach to improving the value chain relationships of this particular commodity. In addition a number of development agencies looked into the issue of value chain development and eradication of child labor practices.

There is however, also an unfortunate side to the story. Producing countries have been overrun by projects. Many companies started implementing projects with farms and cooperatives in the attempt to save corporate reputation, as part of an internal sustainability target, or because they needed to secure the source of the commodity. Meanwhile the traders started to horde the commodity so that they could influence the price, creating a good business for them but with no benefit to the farmers. Some of the projects may have been set-up as partnership projects between corporations and development agencies, others as part of industry platforms. What was the problem? Parallel activities with little or no collaboration between the different projects despite working with the same target group lead to innovative, far-reaching projects that fell short of a potential impact. People collaborated within their project, yet were competing between projects.

Where could we start an intervention?

Sometimes parallel activities cannot be avoided, but it helps to monitor all activity ahead of planning activities.

This step may sound obvious, yet,  in my experience it is often ignored. If we really want to contribute to better co-creation, we need to take collaboration seriously and move beyond the interests of territory or ego to look at what truly helps shift a system toward sustainability before we design interventions. The following strategies can be applied:


Dimension (Aspect) Strategy

Check the context:

Check what is going on in the same field or the same area or the same country by other companies or other organizations. Map the different approaches and see where yours fits. Address gaps rather than doubling or tripling similar approaches.

(Collective action)

Consider joint projects:

Integrate the project into existing activities or join up with other actors to jointly implement a larger project.

(Iterative learning)

Create a learning platform:

If there are already many activities going on, at least share the learnings, approaches, success and failures.


(Connectivity, Collective Action)


Create a coordinating platform:

Increase collective impact by setting up structures that allow actors to create joint agendas, joint monitoring systems, joint progress reviews, and regular communication.

Remember that platforms of different stakeholder activities only work if people get to know each other – and the story behind a project – and if all stakeholders can connect with a larger emotionally charged goal. Taking collaboration seriously also means that we learn what it means to gradually get a complex system of actors into collaboration. We need to focus on planning a collaborative change process.




This blog post looks at the Collective Leadership Compass as a way to start addressing a sustainability project. For more information on the Art of Leading Collectively, checkout the inside the book and  reviews on amazon.com, or get inspired by an onsite course that takes the compass into the daily challenges of navigating complex change.


Categories: Collective Leadership practice examples, Engaging stakeholders authentically, Harnessing collective intelligence, Living the six capacities of Collective Leadership, and Sensing the whole.


  1. Excellent concise analysis and action to be implemented.
    Guiding a consultant in Africa, on Child Labour in the supply chain, when our Foundation is based in Geneva is a lot easier with Blogs such as this one.
    Thank you.

  2. Andrew Namakhoma

    This is very helpful as it is true to the situation in my country Malawi, where currently, we are working in revamping the Collective Impact Ground which was formed a year ago. This is a CIG in tobacco production marketing and processing.

    I find it very helpful. Our next meeting will take place early November, 2017.

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