Team reflections on collaboration and decision making

It’s near impossible to write a blog individually that sums up the feelings of those involved in a collaborative project. It would also take a dramatically long time to collaboratively write a blog that could even attempt to make sense between a range of different perspectives!

The policy context at the moment is sympathetic to collaborative approaches, which are heralded as one of the key solutions to the complex difficulties facing social services and the public sector. That said, it is difficult to evidence the impact of collaboration due to a number of factors including: how collaboration is conceptualised and difficulties of measurement, and of course the range of perspectives that have to be included (to name a few).

We know that on a good day, collaboration is supported by (adapted from Community Toolbox, 2015):

  • working together to develop a shared vision and mission that can reflect a range of outcomes at different levels
  • identifying specific actions that will be undertaken by each collaborator
  • collaborative leadership – encouraging people to have generative conversations and to look at issues holistically
  • employing or providing some resources to support a move towards action
  • routinely monitoring and documenting change
  • gaining external support e.g. facilitation

So, commonly held (and simplified) outcomes from collaboration include:

  • increased learning and knowledge sharing between diverse perspectives
  • reduced cost by avoiding duplication
  • releasing common resources
  • greater innovation as there opportunities to share and build on ideas are enabled

On a bad day, the practice of bringing together individuals from a range of diverse backgrounds together can be difficult. In this project we aimed to not only stimulate collaboration locally, but to collaborate internally too, to model the change we hoped to seek. At times, this felt even more difficult and it would be fair to say that the makings of this project have fallen into some of the same traps as other collaborative endeavors have.

Mulgan (2016) highlights that the common pitfalls of collaboration include:

  • inaction – circular conversations, difficulties in moving towards implementation
  • slower pace of change – taking time to surface and understand disparate views can reduce the speed of the work
  • consensus – a focus on consensus can reduce the likelihood of exploring underlying issues and as such they do not become resolved

In this project so far, did collaboration add more than it subtracts?

Here are some of the thoughts from the team:

On collaborating internally….

…For me, there was an identified tension between deliberation and action and a colleague suggested that perhaps we could have been doing with some tools/support to support us to say when we just need to ‘move on’ and when things need to be more fully discussed.  One thing is for sure, Iriss now has an increased understanding of its own experience of collaborative processes – so it may be easier for us to understand others’ ‘reactions’ and enable/develop mechanisms for others in similar processes going forward.

…My favourite thing about collaboration is when my starting position is changed and shifted by the conversation and contributions of others. But what I really struggled with internally was when this didn’t happen; when I still felt ‘right’, but my view wasn’t reflected in consensus decision making. I think in finding the middle ground, we may have all felt some level of dissatisfaction which can be really demotivating. At times, the process felt draining and time consuming, without much action being achieved. This was definitely a learning opportunity and I think in the future we would approach this process differently, as well as speak about collaboration with a lot more experience and honesty.

On collaborating to choose a partner….

…I felt really confident about sharing the decision making process with the group. However, I’m not entirely clear on how the criteria was used by each of the teams, nor how they answered the question of ‘which area provides the greatest opportunity for learning around collaboration’. As I was facilitating this part of the event, I also didn’t get to add my voice to any of the groups. So, to me, the decision wasn’t really shared. The idea was that the Iriss team would actively join in the discussions (rather than facilitating), but I’m not sure if this was enabled effectively. I think it would have been more fruitful if Iriss were also given a vote, as a team.

…Because Iriss was committing a potentially huge resource (of staff time) to this project, I felt that we were responsible for making the right choice of partner, but there wasn’t a mechanism for our choice to be expressed. I feel that we did our own experience as an organisation a disservice by not participating as a partner in decision making in the earlier stages of these events. We also limited our scope of partners to those who could attend these full day events rather than hosting open applications.

Collective decision making and voting

We didn’t set out to use specific voting methods to reach consensus but on reflection we broadly used the following models:

Internally –
Consensus decision-making
“Consensus requires that a majority approve a given course of action, but that the minority agree to go along with the course of action. In other words, if the minority opposes the course of action, consensus requires that the course of action should be modified, as far as possible, to remove objectionable features.”

…We tried to stick to these principles but, as some of the other reflections outline, there was only so much scope for a majority decision to be made and consensus/modifications taken into account from others. I think this process often left much of the Iriss team involved feeling not quite comfortable with the final decision – whether they had been on the side of the majority or minority!

…We spent a lot of time in internal meetings often culminating in some sort of voting: hands, dots etc. Often our opinions were distributed over a wide spectrum meaning that once a decision was made each of us would have to work with something that was a distance away from our own ideal outcome. Such is life. However, other consequences were that individual enthusiasm were often significantly affected by the process.

Voting-based method – Range voting
“This lets each member {groups in our case} score one or more of the available options. The option with the highest vote number is chosen as the winner. This method has experimentally been shown to produce the lowest Bayesian regret (wasted votes/unhappiness) among common voting methods, even when voters are strategic.”

…We asked each group to score the other presentations, then the top two scores were the ‘winners’. I think if it hadn’t been the confrontational nature of this being so open, and the winners revealed while the so-called ‘losers’ were in the room, we may have avoided some of the uneasiness that was felt.

…An element of the voting I found challenging was that on the day, groups were voting as a collective. But many of these groups had just met – and members represented radically different interests and voices. Would people have voted differently if given an individual vote? We were relying on consensus not just across a broader cohort but in individual groups – an experience we know isn’t easy! However, it was fascinating to understand my group’s own journey of voting and I think witnessing that decision making really opened my eyes to some of the priorities and values of the group which I would not have understood otherwise.

Enabling Collaborative Leadership

Enabling Collaborative Leadership is a programme of work delivered by Workforce Scotland.

The focus of the work is “on core knowledge, skills, behaviours and approaches which support the development of collaborative leadership. Participants will experience tangible benefits of working collaboratively and will have an explicit role to demonstrate and support the development of collaborative working in their own organisations“.

The work is underpinned by an action research approach, which is believed to provide a deeper way of understanding the complexities of the challenges facing public services, and supporting people to move forward.

Find out more about the Pioneer Programme here.

Detroit Soup

Detroit SOUP’s mission is to promote community-based development through crowdfunding, creativity, collaboration, democracy, trust and fun. With key partnerships and community leaders, the hope is to change the way people engage with the democratic process by establishing neighborhood relational hubs across the city. In their own words, “SOUP offers a space where people can connect. The rest is up to attendees, but wonderful things can happen when people come together, and SOUP stories are evidence of that”.

“More information in this short film.

An open call for partners

This project is about genuinely building the work from the bottom up – which means no pre-determined theme or topic – just responding to local needs and issues. Its a new approach because it also means working across different agents in the system – taking a ‘deep-dive’ approach – to see what change we can actually make together over a longer period of time.

Open or predetermined?

That said, at the initial stage, we didn’t have a name for the project, a specific theme, or a partner. This is because we hoped to collaboratively design this shared piece of work. We wanted to make sure that the collaborative approach is modelled through the project from the very start to the very end.

The trouble with this is being open enough to engage people’s curiosity about the work, but not being too vague as to put people off. And, we’ve found that the balance between being clear/easy to understand, and being open/not determined is hard to do.

First steps…

As a first step we put together some text. We agonised over this internally, trying to make sure that there was enough of a ‘hook’ to show peopel that we are serious and committed to the work, but also giving enough space to enable people to see how this could link in with local priorities.

Seeking feedback

We decided to ask a group of critical friends for feedback. And thank goodness for that! This feedback was both fascinating and invaluable. We received comments ranging from ‘you need to be more specific’, to ‘people will want to know more before they engage’, and ‘isn’t this best teased out in conversation, rather than an application process?’, ‘is the substance of this work per-determined?’. In our view, the perceptions from he group we’d engaged with represented a spectrum of attitudes towards project management, tolerance of risk and comfort with uncertainty. Many of these attitudes had been represented within Iriss too.


In part due to the fact that we were unable to be specific about the substance (topic of the work, we’d ended up being too specific about our own ideas for how the work might pan out. To some extent we were conscious that because we’re not offering any additional funding for this work, that we’d need to sell ourselves – but it had the opposite effect. Unfortunately, feedback suggested that this actually read as ‘us’ and ‘them’ rather than being the explicit message that we’d hoped to impart about it being a collective ‘we’ relationship. It meant that many were left asking themselves questions around the extent to which the work is something that we were inviting people to participate in, or if our ambition was to co-design the whole thing. Similarly, there were some questions about our role – would Iriss be there to evaluate/ research? Would we enable existing work that was proving difficult to get off the ground? or, would our role be to co-design a new, shared piece of work which we’d develop together for the purpose of learning/making local progress? As a team, we were clear that the role was the latter, but this prompt was useful to enable us to clarify our intention and be explicit.

Critical Friends

We are drawing on the knowledge and expertise from a range of critical friends who will support us as this project takes shape. Their job is to contribute knowledge and expertise from other areas of work. This will involve bringing new ideas, or helping us to make good links and connections nationally. Our critical friends are from a range of organisations including: Glasgow Centre for Population Health, the Joint Improvement Team, SCVO, Stirling University, Leading Room, Scottish Government and Outcome Focus.

Our first meeting was focused on the process of choosing a partner. We’d pulled together the feedback (outlined above) and discussed these issues more broadly. One of our critical friends rightly highlighted that our original process straddled two paradigms – a competition based paradigm where partners would bid to work with us and we’d decide who fit the criteria; and a contrasting paradigm that tries to support shared ownership. Feedback highlighted that by selecting a partner in the process (as was described) could be considered to be reinforcing an ‘expert’ power dynamic. Many of the other critical friends agreed with this feedback.

This was quite difficult for us to hear because this ‘expert’ notion is one of the very things we are keen to challenge!  As an organisation we were really keen to go down the second route, but we weren’t sure how, or what it would be like to give up the single power of decision making (this is something we hope to reflect on throughout the project process).

In the end, we decided that rather than sending out an application form, it would be better to host an ‘open day’ to begin with – as a way to start a conversation about the work and as a means to engage a wider group of people that may be interested in getting involved in a community of practice/interest around this work. We considered that this could enable our collaborative intention to be made more explicit in the process itself as well as the text. The invite and information is here.


The views of the critical friends included:

  • it’s more important to get people intrigued and curious, than give the impression that everything is sorted out
  • try to be specific about what you want to get out of the project, so that the ambitions of the work are clear from the outset
  • in systems approaches, the starting point matters as a way of modelling the principles you are working to, and so be careful of the tone of your starting point