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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