10 Tips For Successful Regional Collaborations

Ed BurghardI participated in a panel discussion on “The Future of Economic Development in the Midwest”. One of the key messages I delivered is the increasing importance of Regional collaboration as a way to improve both efficiency and effectiveness of local economic development activities.

The cost of building a brand for your community has growing exponentially, and gotten a lot more sophisticated than the days when if you made certain site selection consultants were aware of your location’s benefits. The challenge has also shifted from domestic to global as more and more companies have globalized their own operations.

It is a game with new demands. If you try to participate without either the right expertise or funding, you have little chance for success. That is why Regional collaboration is fast becoming a model that economic development leaders should consider for capital attraction and lead management efforts.

However, Regional collaboration takes work to be successful. Just because everybody involved wants a successful outcome, there is no guarantee one will be achieved.

To prepare for the panel discussion, I reached back to my days at P&G where I had the opportunity to work on a brand that was co-owned by another company. I can’t honestly say the exercise didn’t have challenges. In fact, participants on both sides of the alliance jokingly referred to it as a marriage that periodically needed the help of a counselor to work. But, it was certainly a great personal learning experience.

Here are ten tips that I learned from others on how to make strategic alliances, like Regional collaborations, a practical success.

  1. Leadership Involvement. Collaborations are hard work. Management cannot simply create a Regional collaboration and walk away. In order to work, the leadership of every participant in the collaboration needs to be involved and continually supportive of a successful outcome. There were a number of times when we needed senior Management to remove (or adjust) operational constraints in order for the Alliance to move forward. It wasn’t a passive exercise for the leaders, meaningful decisions needed to be made that only they could make. If you cannot get the leadership of the appropriate economic development organizations to actively participate, then the collaboration will likely not succeed. Trust will disintegrate as soon as there is an operational roadblock that exceeds the authority of the people assigned to the collaboration to resolve.
  2. Resource for Success (people and funds). The best intentions will fail if all organizational members of the collaboration do not appropriately resource the work. Funding is typically the easy part to think through. Although, often adequate and sustainable funding may be hard to find. Getting the right people resources is often the harder task. While organizations value the expected outcome of the collaboration, they are often not willing to assign their top staff to participate. Like any endeavor, success is dependent on the quality of the people working against the goal. It is important to view the success of the Regional collaboration as mission critical to the success of your economic development plan, and to staff it accordingly. Assign the right people and delegate sufficient decision-making authority so they can truly represent your organization on the team.
  3. Align on What Will be Delivered. Expectations have a way of morphing over time, often growing exponentially if other tactics in the business plan fail to deliver planned results. It is important to start with and document a common set of expectations for the Regional collaborative effort. This is the responsibility of the leadership of each participating organization. Setting and aligning to a set of expectations not only assures everybody is on the same page from the start; but it also provides clarity of operation to the team managing the collaboration. One of the most important areas to get an aligned expectation around is the realistic timeframe for delivered results and how the results will be measured. If every organization in the collaboration measures success differently, then somebody is always going to be disappointed. I have found that often, no time is allocated for the team to go through Tuckman’s Model of effective team performance (forming, norming, storming, performing). There is an unrealistic expectation that collaborations will instantaneously be effective. It doesn’t happen that way in your own organization, and it is even less likely to happen in a collaboration of multiple economic development organizations where everybody has their own boss to satisfy.
  4. Define Clearly Who Does What. Ever notice how often teams operate in a crisis mode? Many times the crisis is self-created because of lack of effective action planning. Members need to know who is leading what and when outcomes can be expected. Without clarity, important things will fall between the cracks and team members will be saying “I thought so-and-so was responsible”. Effective project management is key in your own economic development organization and even more important in a Regional collaboration. You want to make certain that there is a clear understanding of a) what will be done by the collaboration versus individual organizations, b) who specifically is leading the work and c) when the work can be expected to be completed. Action plans should be created and reviewed by the leadership of each organization in the collaboration.
  5. Over Communicate. I double dare you. It has been my experience that regional collaborations have a tendency to under communicate what they are doing and the challenges they are facing. Yet, most of the time they truly believe they are over communicating. Presentations are viewed as a distraction, and teams often prefer to share stories where they faced and solved a problem versus involving leadership in the process of helping them meet the challenge. Working in stealth mode is not helpful for Regional collaborations. It is important to keep private and public sector leaders informed and to continually remind them of the realistic outcome expectations.
  6. Have a Defined Decision Process. Regional collaborations have to balance the needs of multiple organizations. Often, decisions need to be made where not every participant benefits equally. For example, a decision on which industries and/or geographies to focus attraction efforts on will stimulate debate and require an aligned position in order for the collaboration to move forward. Establishing a formal decision-making process in advance will help ensure the discussions are productive and the team does not spend an inordinate amount of time “spinning wheels”. One decision-making model I recommend for difficult decisions is RACI. It is important to ensure clarity on which type of decisions can be made in the collaboration and which need to be delegated upward to the leadership of the economic development organizations participating in the collaboration. Establishing this level of clarity upfront is liberating to the team and ensures decisions are made efficiently. One concern I often hear is that delegating decisions up will encourage teams to not take decisions on their own. To avoid this risk, you can require the team to go through a formal options analysis process when delegating decisions upward. In this process, the team must present the logical options and describe the potential risk/reward. This provides management with important information to help make the decision, and because it requires work by the team it helps reduce the risk that they will delegate too many decisions upward.
  7. Regularly Assess Partnership Performance. You get what you measure. We all know that. Regional collaboration only makes sense if it is a more efficient and effective way to get results. As a consequence, you need to establish measures to inform you whether the desired operational benefit is being realized. Measures will also help ensure the collaboration team stays focused on what matters most and avoids scope creep.
  8. Align Work and Reward Systems. One of the reasons star performers often hate working on teams is that they lose the ability to shine singularly. As they say, “there is no I in team”, to which your top performers are likely to respond “but there is an I in win”. Because Regional collaboration is hard work, you want your stars to view participation as valued. The only way to do so is to make certain your organization indeed values it. Appropriately value Regional collaboration success in your organization. That means make collaboration work a priority and integrate it into your economic development organizational plan. It is the difference described in a fable between being the pig and not the chicken. Make certain your organization is the pig (if you aren’t familiar with the fable, go to the hot link).
  9. Constructively Manage Conflict. Nothing worth accomplishing is without conflict. Regional collaborations are created to address complex challenges. As a result, conflict is inevitable. Unrestricted conflict is destructive. But conflict can also be constructive is managed properly. I am a big fan of Stephen Covey, and he teaches the value of win:win outcomes. The Covey principle can be used effectively in conflict management. But inevitably it will help team performance if allowing the team to take conflict they cannot seem to resolve productively to a leadership team for arbitration creates a safety valve. Without such a safety valve, trust can be irreparably damaged and team performance compromised.
  10. Celebrate Successes. The public and private celebration of Regional collaboration successes encourages the team to achieve an even higher performance level moving forward. Higher performance on the agreed-to outcomes will deliver you an even better return on investment. Taking the time to celebrate success is simply good business leadership.

How You Can Help

Leave a comment on your experience with Regional collaborations. Your comments will help me do an even better job as a panelist next week. Do you believe Regional collaborations are valuable? When do they work and what makes them fail?

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20 Comments so far

  1. Ron Kresha

    August 17, 2011

    Nice timely article. The federal government continues to place emphasis on these regional movements and communities who can embrace regional efforts should gain an advantage. The ten tips are valuable for someone looking to move a region forward, and I think regional efforts often break down too early but not heeding the simple communication rules.


  2. Michael Haywood

    August 17, 2011

    I too believe in the power of collaboration, but have to build a strong business case for the benefits, given that our industry is extremeely competitive and is often unwilling to share ideas or work to develop mutually advantageous opportunities. May I suggest you read the latest issue of Harvard Business Review, July/August 2011, as five articles deal with the theme of “collaboration”.

  3. Fred Pottschmidt

    August 17, 2011

    These are 10 great tips — the only other one I would add would be “culture”. You need to make sure you have an appeciation for evereyone’s cultural heritage/background and understand their norms as you form the team. Doing this will help establish strong relationships — and strong relationships are needed for effective collaboration.

  4. Dave Quinn

    August 17, 2011

    I was fortunate enough to begin my economic development career in the High Ground of Texas (www.highground.org) region. This is a regional marketing group with 60+ counties. Levelland was an active member and I received a great deal of my ED training by working with long time professionals within the region.

    Trust is the key to success and a mentality that a rising tide lifts all boats. The lessons I learned from my colleagues in the region kept me from making rookie mistakes that could have hurt not only Levelland but the region.

    It also allowed Levelland to reach much broader market than would have been possible if we had tried go at it alone. Being active is also a must. Simply joining a group is better than not being apart, but you gain infinitely more benefits if you actively participate.

  5. John Marshall

    August 17, 2011

    Great article! Right on point and very timely.

  6. Brad Berg

    August 19, 2011

    This is very trendy right now and makes sense when doing say private collaborations with economic devolpment. When your talking local government entities, Regional collaboration only makes sense if it is a more efficient and effective way to get results as you say in point #7.
    Does not the model and efficency have to change or you will have the same issues just controlled out of one location?

  7. Scott A. Gibbs

    August 19, 2011

    Collaborations should emerge organically, not driven by any existing institutionalized EDO. Let the spark come from stakeholders, not the usual suspects. We need a new ED culture.

  8. Jack Ranney

    August 22, 2011

    In my work, multi-organization collaboration is the key to successful economic development. All of the projects I work on require collaboration between multiple entities in a region, or else projects will not be implemented or completed successfully. Especially, in the current economy, collaboration is essential.

    In the current economy, where resources are even more scarce, collaboration allows project costs to be shared, thus easing the cost factor for an individual entity and enabling the project to be more successful. There’s (what I consider to be an old saying), what’s good for the city is good for the region and what’s good for the region benefits all the communities in the region.

  9. Wayne Gregory

    August 23, 2011

    I often work in collaborations composed of multi-employer trade associations as it relates to regional agreements and projects that require participation across several stakeholder groups with divergent interests, but the need to satisfy a common interest. I will echo Cate’s comments exactly in that the successful collaborations have all had one or two dominant stakeholder/association groups leading the way and setting the tone and basic agenda for the entire group. With that in mind, it was really contingent upon the success of those one or two leader groups to successfully sell that agenda to the group for a majority buy-in. I have also found that those leaders that adopt a Servant Leadership style in these key role are always more successful in motivating and compelling the group towards accomplishing its’ agenda and goals.

  10. Al Jones

    August 23, 2011

    Forming regional collaborations was the only way to get just about anything significant done, everybody brings different resources, access, skills, and energy to the project that wove together more like a drunken novice operating a high-speed loom in the dark. It is “herding cats” at it’s finest. Ed’s points on building a team are insightful and would certainly build a more stable platform. The personalities involved and how fees/funds were allocated/earned by the participants made general discussions on regional team-building so often break down into turf grabs by the least effective organizations that it was shelved as more destructive than constructive. A project to focus on got past most of that and so we ended up forming different regional teams for each major project based on what they could bring to the table and who we had to use because of their turf. Unwieldy but it also pushed performance as they didn’t get to just show up, muck things up, and take credit as frequently. Assessing the competence of who is available in your regional network is essential, some are always brand new, some are always in way over their head with some learning like crazy and others just bluffing along, while others long there often don’t turn out to have nearly the understanding of their own tools and community one would reasonably expect (i.e. never written or run a grant from a common funding source they brag about knowing.) Often, bizarrely, I’d find all or most of the staff of the local economic development organizations were recent arrivals (like last week) to the community so their knowledge of it, let alone networks, was nonexistent and they’d range from very effective to passengers on the train gazing out the windows with surprise. The organizations that know the relevant programs and get those tools are hugely helpful as are the ones with doers, networkers, implementers, fast workers, and researchers. The organizations that would come to the table looking for something to help the current director keep his job and get a raise while contributing nothing and drawing out some fees too were a minority but often the biggest and most visible ones with an official turf allocation of a city or county. Those self-absorbed slacker were also the most destructive to the regional collaborations as they’d cheat and betray the other team members consistently, assuming they’d be moving on elsewhere to an even better job, so coaxing key team members to work together again with the untrustworthy team members is an ongoing challenge to say the least. For a lot of our bigger or more complex projects it was eventually a 20-40 person team representing 4-9 organizations and it’s amazing what can get done despite what sounds too unwieldy…but it took a lot of projects to earn each others’ trust and respect as well as figure out what capacities all of us had or needed to develop quickly.

  11. Brian Dowling

    September 16, 2011

    I am still pursuing an ongoing interest regarding complexity in the public sector and how that impacts community governance. These regional organizations have a tremendous impact of the lives of locals making up those regions but if they are represented by the type of directors that Al points out they have little recourse to make changes in direction. At the same time having this area be the focus of professionals can enhance efficiency when not hampered by politics. According to the Brookings Institute our economic engines now operate at the metro level http://bit.ly/nWEUJw if that is true it is an argument that our economic development efforts should as well. Is it possible to get our governance efforts to operate at that level as well and what needs to be done to bring that about?

  12. Saeed Nawaz

    September 21, 2011

    The 10 tip are an excellent summation of first hand experience of collaborations. Collaborations for economic development amongst local or territorial governments are distinct from inter or intra industry/ businesses collaborations.

    Collaboration in different businesses may be in the form of joint ventures, partnerships and above all industrial clusters. The businesses while competing with each other cooperate to develop enabling environment, manufacturing complementarities, supportive infrastructure, common expertize and knowledge pool for the regional cluster.

    The case for regional collaboration to attract inward investments to develop economically is quiet different. In a zero-sum game hardly any collaboration is possible and the regions may race for the bottom to brand themselves as most investor friendly. Other two scenarios could be a win-win situation for drivers (leading partners) as well as smaller participants through maximization of outcome for all and an advantageous arrangement for one or few with no cost or damage to other partners.

    The acid test for the success of every possible kind of collaboration is the unanimity of stated and implied objectives of all the partners or an arrangement close to this consensus. Besides celebrating the success replication of successes with or without improvisation and mechanism for mid-course corrections are also essential.

    Conventionally, the regions with higher economic growth rate get comparatively higher inward investments.

  13. […] is a follow on from a previous article on tips for successful collaborations that were gleaned from his Procter & Gamble days of working with a co-promotion […]

  14. […]   […]

  15. […] The Burghard Group | Strengthening Brand America: http://t.co/smdkFQpyM5  […]

  16. […] on providing insights into the drivers of regional initiative success.  I authored a post offering my 10 tips that I would encourage you to read as well.  Another post I’d recommend you read looks at […]

  17. […] when alliances are successful, they allow you to achieve a competitive advantage by accomplishing far more than your organization […]

  18. […] Ten Tips For Successful Regional Collaboration […]

  19. Mac Love

    April 15, 2014

    Excellent article, Ed.

    I found that kicking off a new venture with a little disruption is a healthy way to gain alignment and improve communication.

    Meeting on neutral ground can help your team escape their individual comfort zones and build from a shared interdisciplinary foundation. As relationships are built and managed over the course of the project, I find that these new shared experiences reinforce the team’s overall objective and afford greater appreciation of the journey to achieve success.

  20. […] 10 Tips For regional Collaboration […]

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