COLLABORATION  FAILURE

 

OVERVIEW[1]

While most collaborations and coalitions experience success, failure is also possible.  Definitions of failure  include the following:

     did not reach goal

     did not last as a coalition/collaboration

     did not get recognition from the target of change

     did not get recognition or support from the community/constituency

     lost credibility with membership of the coalition/collaboration

     did not grow or expand

     did not create lasting networks

     did not raise consciousness

     did not help members to gain any new skills or competencies

 

Both internal and external conditions may have a significant impact on coalition effectiveness.   Coalitions or collaborations that fail often do so because:

 

·             conditions in the community or in the larger society are not conducive to their existence

 

·             the relevant organizations are not committed to the goal or to sustaining the coalition itself

 

·             they have not accumulated sufficient contributions - vision, resources or power -- to accomplish what they seek to do.

 

·             they lack the competence to manage the complex set of strategies and relationships involved in sustaining a coalition effort.

 

Obstacles may cause a coalition's termination at any phase in its development.  The pace of demise varies according to the original time frame set for the collaboration's work.  At the Formation stage, failure may prevent the coalition from beginning at all, or indicate that it was not started with all the right elements in place to ensure its continuation.  Coalitions that fail at the Implementation phase may have misjudged what was needed to address the goals they selected, or failed to develop the internal processes to manage the actual work that was to begin.  At the Maintenance Phase, failure may result from the loss of momentum toward goals, loss of commitment by members or loss of resources to sustain the effort.  In the final phase, Termination, failure may occur because the work is no longer compelling or the participants are no longer as involved and there are no replacements available.

 

 

A.  FACTORS ASSOCIATED WITH FAILURE

 

There are a number of known factors associated with coalition failure. The following list was developed from hearing  about problems coalition leaders have experienced.  Rather than view this as a recipe for disaster, it should be considered as an inventory of things that can be avoided or anticipated,  of areas where skills need to be acquired,  of aspects of the collaboration process that need careful attention. 

 

1.  GOALS

 

       lack of a common vision

       failure of planned projects

       formation of a collaboration only for reasons of self-interest, without consideration for the greater good

       collaboration is incompatible with the mission or values of the member groups

       formation of a collaboration without adequate purpose ("it seemed like a good idea")

       insufficient resources to meet goal

       agenda is not member-driven

       inadequate planning

       lack of progress or interim victories

       loss of commitment to the goal

       change in coalition or member organizations' priorities

 

2.  RESOURCES

 

Funding:

       inadequate funding

       lack of a stable funding base and adequate resources

       no compensation for additional work entailed in coalition-building/planning/evaluation.

       irresolvable differences in benefits and pay among agencies that are supposed to share staff or responsibilities

       not enough funding built in for administration and management of the collaborative effort

       coalition  competing with member organizations for the same funding source

       inadequate in-kind resources

 

Staffing And Leadership:

       inadequate staffing

       lack of strong central leadership

       inadequate leadership

       lack of experience in cooperative ventures

       lack of knowledge of relevant trends i.e. legislation, policy, community priorities, competition

       lack of organizational and management skills and/or vision

       burnt out or entrenched staff or leadership

       lack of leadership development  or succession

       insufficient leadership accountability to the coalition’s membership base

 

Membership:

       loss of  membership interest and commitment

       lack of multi-culturalism

       tension over shared decision-making and allocation of resources

       inadequate incorporation of newcomers

       ineffective management of dissent and conflict among members

 

3.  STRUCTURE

 

       structure that is too ad hoc and confusing

       overly bureaucratic or hierarchical structure

       confusion re: lines of authority and responsibility

       deficient communication

       lack of accountability to each other

       failure to clarify:

            - levels of membership and participation

            - peripheral members/user groups

            - organizational representatives

            - relative power of individual members

            - replacement of representatives

 

 

 

4.  PARTICIPATION BENEFITS

 

       participants do not gain new skills or competencies

       people sign on to proposal without knowing how “the pie” will be divided

       false promises are made regarding outcomes

       little opportunity for creative and innovative work

       no opportunity for "fun" - socialization, bonding, expressive benefits

 

5.  COLLABORATION PROCESSES

 

       decision-making is not equally shared

       failure to create a workable consensus

       no system or commitment to shared communication

       failure to attend to group process and feelings

       unequal involvement and recognition of members

       uneven power/control among members

       conflict is avoided or displaced, rather than aired and addressed

       insensitivity to unique qualities and needs of each member organization

       lack of trust -- people are not united, do not visualize the same outcomes

 

6.  DIVISION OF LABOR

 

       lack of realistic expectations about the amount of time and energy required for organizing and maintaining the collaboration itself

       over extension or unrealistic demands on members

       loss of direction or focus

       lack of clarity about  what the staff should do or to whom they are accountable

       too much control over staff by organization that donates them;  staff may feel more accountable to the organization that pays them than they do to the coalition

       failure to accept the suggestions of newer members: e.g.  Founding Member syndrome: "That's not what we had in mind when we started this"

       lead agency controls too much; responsibility and accountability are not shared

       "Do it my way" mentality does not yield to "Do it OUR way"

       coalition members are not involved in creating their own assignments, and may be unwilling or unable to perform activities

       certain tasks go undone because nobody wants to volunteer

       coalition members take on unrealistic assignments and cannot carry them out

       coalition is expected to accomplish certain tasks, but is not empowered to force the members to fulfill their respective responsibilities

       no clear division of labor - involving everyone in everything

 

7.  COLLABORATION CREDIBILITY WITH MEMBERS

 

       representatives do not get recognition or support from their constituency

       loss of accountability to constituency/member organization

       member organizations feel compromised by the collaboration's work or image

·             members may feel exploited - doing work without recognition or compensation

       lack of trust/mutual respect within the collaboration

       perception that staff represents only one agency or dominant faction

       recommendations from evaluations are disregarded

       funding source overly controls coalition activity through staff and resources

·             lack of involvement of members in key decisions

       lead agency controls too much of the coalition's activities; contributions and input from other members is not cultivated

       leadership or lead agency does not report activities and progress to members, or involve them in program decisions

       betrayal or lying to membership; failure to do what was promised

 

8.  ADAPTING TO CHANGES IN EXTERNAL CONDITIONS

 

·              negative publicity

·              competing coalitions emerge

·              turf battles between members or between the collaboration and outsiders

·              political and economic climate are or become unfavorable

·              controversial strategies and tactics

·              inappropriate targets

·              inability to negotiate and compromise with target

 

9.  ORGANIZATIONAL AND INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS

 

·         negative experiences with past collaborative efforts

·         difficult past or current relationships among possible member organizations

·              destructive relationships within coalition are not checked

·         competition and turf issues among potential members

·         members sabotage work or strike their own deals with the targets of change

·         personality conflicts between organizational representatives

·         racial or cultural polarization

·         differing community norms and values about cooperation

·         competition among coalition members

·         lack of mutual trust

·         presence of conflicting loyalties, vested interests, or fear of domination by another agency

 

B.  AVOIDING OR MINIMIZING FAILURE

 

While the presence of the above factors may lead to failure, they may also be minimized or avoided altogether if the potential trouble zones are anticipated.   Collaboration development should be conscious and strategic from the beginning.  Collaborations can avoid or minimize failure if they pay attention to the internal needs for collaboration growth, recruit participants and obtain adequate resources,  maintain accountability to the broader membership base and community, and make steady progress toward external goals.

           

Working collaboratively is not the same as doing things alone, or organizing a single issue grassroots campaign.   The rules and the process are different.  Sharing ideas, hearing others, respecting the wishes of the group and using the collaboration to plan together are critical processes.  Ideally, group-directed evaluations are used to identify areas for improvement.  

 

If things seem to be failing, group discussion and problem-solving is needed,  to see if they can be repaired.  An outside mediator or technical assistance consultant can be helpful at this stage.  The collaboration may also wish to establish a temporary working group to focus on problem-solving.

 

Often collaborations that fail at one thing can continue on in some other form. Relationships established in one collaboration can lead to the formation of new collaborative efforts.  Failure need not be complete, nor devastating.

 

 

 

 

 



[1]  For related discussions, see also Chapters 12: Termination and Transformation, and  13: Managing Dynamic Tensions.