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Collaboration is a contact sport

November 1, 2006
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Insights from a recent conference

Collaboration has become a buzzword in the human services professions—rife with the expectation that if we could only collaborate, we could achieve all of our service delivery aims. But what are the tools that make collaboration work? And how do you begin to cross system boundaries to create collaborative efforts with the shared goal of improving people's resiliency and recovery?

In March the American College of Mental Health Administration (ACMHA) convened its annual Santa Fe Summit, focusing this year on the role of cross-systems collaboration as a catalyst for transformation. The College, comprised of leaders from the behavioral health specialty sector, discussed with peers and colleagues across several disciplines the role of collaboration in service delivery. By the end of the summit, attendees concluded that collaboration is a contact sport: It's about relationships, interactions, and shared responsibility/ownership.

Building on Margaret J. Wheatley's "living systems" work, ACMHA's 2006 summit explored the relationships that form through collaboration and sought to learn from those who had developed and experienced collaborative efforts across systems. Something must be identified, speakers noted, as the catalyst for collaborative activity to occur. Michael Hogan, PhD, director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and a keynoter, stated that "In systems where the focus has for years been on distinct specialties that can be offered to assist persons, collaboration requires a different view." In collaborating, one doesn't simply cooperate or partner with others. The joining together of different groups with focused ideas, thoughts, and energies creates something new—something that doesn't belong to any single collaborator. "And now, with diverse expertise and experience present, is the time to take emerging and shared commitments to the next step," Dr. Hogan added.

David Shern, PhD, then dean and professor, Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute, noted that "Collaboration is about levers of change. We must reframe complex issues and form common definitions of problems." Only then, he added, can the focus be on the collaboration and its resulting outcomes, not the individual collaborators.

ACMHA asked program faculty to provide opportunities to interact about specifics of successful collaboration—to develop the tools of effective collaboration, which are listed below.

Clarity of Purpose

The need for collaboration is born from degrees of separation with unrealized common threads. The central focus for collaborators must remain clear and is generally the person/population in need of assistance. Having that focus allows the collaboration to belong to the result of the collected effort, not to an individual collaborator.


Collaboration requires individuals to keep their "feet on the ground and their hands in the mud." Effective collaboration requires extraordinary time and effort; it's not something that can be rushed. It may not always go smoothly, and missteps are common. Because collaborations are relationships, not events, they cannot be held to artificial timetables.

Accepting and Sharing Responsibility

Without all parties' willingness to share ownership of and responsibility for new endeavors, the collaborative effort will fail. A dedicated and involved team is required for the collaboration—not a specific collaborator—to succeed. Every participant must be willing to allow and support the collective effort.

Willingness to Explore Change

To share responsibility, people must realize that there are always other options to explore for potential solutions. Through the development of a common language built of different experiences, growth is facilitated. Vision must see beyond the limitations of current funding sources, program designs, or system limitations.

Communication, Flexibility, and Transparency

Collaborative activities need constant interaction and relationship building. Participants must remain open to new directions and ensure that their actions and motives for involvement are transparent and flexible. Issues must be kept on the table; discussions and potential solutions must be shared with all involved.

King Davis, PhD, a keynote speaker and executive director of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, noted that behavioral health participants in collaborative ventures begin from a segregated perspective, forged from decades of creating and enhancing specialty services. To bring that history of isolation into relationship-building activities and interactive dialogue is incredibly difficult. In addition to the required catalyst, a sense of curiosity and courage must be evident. Seeking to collaborate requires behavioral health participants to believe enough in the strength of the ideas and skills they bring to the table to allow them to be shared and nurtured by others. To allow them to be used without needing to control is a challenge.

The collaborative relationship must be strong and, as Wheatley notes, be about far more than structure. Collaboration involves contact. Hands must get muddy and feet must stay grounded. Cross-systems collaboration can be the catalyst for system transformation. For as Dr. Davis said, only then can "we enhance the achievement of complementary goals centered on improvement in the quality of life, functioning, resilience, or recovery of people."

Kris Ericson, PhD, is the Executive Director of the American College of Mental Health Administration (ACMHA) and proprietor of Ericson Consulting.