Collaboration Literacy is just the beginning

When Thomas Berry in 1999 reminded us of the need for the “Great Work” that would need to be done in the twenty-first century, he framed it this way: “The Great Work now, as we move into a new millennium, is to carry out the transition of a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.” Almost 20 years later his dream has become the dream ( of so many people – and still the trajectories have not yet shifted. We are stilling going downhill. Can humankind learn faster?

The complexity of social, environmental, and economic challenges humankind is facing calls for the scaling up of collaboration among many different actors – the public sector, private sector, and civil society at all levels of global development. We indeed need collaboration literacy in an unprecedented way.

In 2011 Paul Gilding reminded us in his Great Disruption that our current economic model has established a systemic structure that inherently creates our environmental and social problems.3 But he emphasized that it is also inherently human to change and find new solutions to systems that do not work any longer—if we decide to change.

The Goal number 17 – Partnerships – made it into the Sustainable Development Goals , because it became clear that what is needed is a global approach to working together for a future that is people-centered and planet-sensitive. Multi-stakeholder collaboration has emerged as a promising approach to address these sustainability challenges. This is why the number and forms of collaboration initiatives have risen tremendously in recent years. Cross-sector partnering has moved onto the agenda of most international organizations, the public sector, and a considerable number of large companies. In the emerging global field of collaboration, we are seeing more and more research on stakeholder collaboration, best practice exchange, and capacity building for partnering. This is not surprising, because collaborating will remain a challenge and we need to practice how to do this in the best possible way. Many existing collaborations are not delivering to their full potential. Developing new cross-sector collaboration initiatives is usually slow with high transaction costs, in part because partnering across societal sectors is easy to espouse but difficult to implement. Collaboration literacy needs a fundamental spirit of collective leadership. It entails bringing together organizations with different drivers, resources, time scales, values, and cultures. Finding common objectives that fulfill the objectives of all sides is not an easy task. Building trust and equity among the collaborating partners is hard work and often outside the comfort zone of the individuals involved. This work stretches our imaginations, and we need to develop a degree of patience and empathy that may be entirely new for us. Moreover, because knowledge on good collaboration practices is fragmented, many collaboration attempts reinvent the wheel. There is no common set of good practices references.

Still, with collaboration now so high on the global agenda, we are seeing a rich tapestry of approaches, from multi-sector initiatives to individual business–NGO partnerships; from global collaborations to local collective action; from those that aim to achieve transformational, systemic change, to those that deliver project-specific results. Certainly we need to look more deeply into the quantity and quality of our multi-actor collaboration efforts. Where silo mentality and competition still prevail, we need to foster a collaboration consciousness and equip ourselves with skills to implement joint approaches. Where people already partner, we need improve or expand the impact by attending to the quality of collaboration.

The collaboration journey is an adventure with uncertain outcome, but no choice to return. As Paul Gilding (link: puts it: “This is just the beginning of what will be seen by historians as the next step on our long evolutionary journey from apes to our full human potential. It has not been and it will not be a smooth ride, but it will sure be a ride to remember.”


We need to learn how to develop effective multi-actor governance structures, and how to build consensus step by step rather than overriding skeptical stakeholders by pressure. We need to understand what forms of agreements among diverse actors serve their purpose without becoming worthless paper documents. We must learn to encourage one another with best practices without becoming competitive. We need to know when laws and regulations support progress and when dialogue on the best way forward is the better route to take.

We have only started the collaboration journey. While our sustainability challenges are complex, we need to grow a complexity of responses that will invite us to learn the art of leading collectively (link compass tool). But the dream is much bigger than just learning how to collaborate; it is also about remembering that we are human—and that the more human we are, the more we’re in tune with the planet to which we belong as humankind. We can build economies of the future rather than replicating industrialization from the past. We can leapfrog traditional infrastructure and take advantage of innovative solutions to connect people. We can increase transparency and empower citizens to have a voice. We can stop pillaging natural resources and reverse environmental degradation. We can make education available everywhere to everyone, men and women.

We can change the world—one step at a time.

Find out more about The Art of Leading Collectively