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How to build cross-sector collaboration

As the state continues to shrink, and commissioners across a range of public service delivery areas are faced with meeting rising demand with diminishing resources, new ways of working and meeting community needs will be necessary, and the social economy sector will need to be a part of co-designing these new systems and solutions. Collaborations across agencies, disciplines and sectors, will become more common. Here at Exeter CVS, the steps we identified are closely aligned to John Kotter's change process described in his change management "fable", "Our Iceberg is Melting."

Things you'll need

  • An understanding of change management processes. You'll also need courage, diplomacy, vision, patience and lots of persistence!

Start with what (and who) you’ve got… (Build a guiding coalition)

Kotter describes the need to form a “guiding coalition” – a group of people of like mind that will act as supporters and agents of change within an organisation. In a multi-agency and cross-sector system, forming the “perfect” coalition could be a never-ending task, so at Exeter CVS we have learned to start with whoever is with us. If you are on to something, that will become apparent and others will follow. As with any change process, there will always be the visionaries and early adopters – those that “get it” and see the potential in your journey from the start. Others will need convincing.

At Exeter CVS, we began work on an ambitious multi-agency hub in early 2015. Our core partners who started the journey with us were limited, but included Exeter City Council and Working Links and others – most notably a local specialist GP surgery and an addictions charity – soon joined. Momentum built, and by the time the hub is fully operational in April 2016, we will be hosting over 26 different projects and organisations drawn from the public, private, and VCSE sectors.

Don’t wait until your partnership has included everyone before you set off – that may lead you to miss your moment. Start with the early adopters, and let the others catch up (see Step 4.) If you can’t find anyone to go with you, you may need to spend some more time at Step One – building the sense of urgency. 


Set out your vision – in pencil! (Form strategic vision and initiatives)

It’s important to have a vision and direction that you can articulate clearly and concisely – a unifying principle that those in your happy band can unite behind – BUT be prepared to adapt and change as you go, and allow others to influence it. Our own hub project’s design was the result of an 8 week consultation process of co-design, engaging with commissioners, staff, managers, volunteers and service users of multiple agencies. Keep your partnership and your plans written in pencil, and prepare to adapt both.


Keep the door open and the welcome mat out. (Enlist a volunteer army.)

Although your journey may start with a relatively small number of co-travellers, be ready for others to join you as the urgency builds, and as the potential of your project and / or partnership becomes apparent.

Collaborative partnership means sharing the design and directing processes – which can feel uncomfortable, especially for people and organisations with a clear sense of vision. However, real, deep-rooted change needs enthusiastic change agents acting at every level, and in every component part of the system – the “volunteer army” that Kotter describes – so be ready to give power away (see Step Five.)


Crowdsource! (Enable action by removing barriers)

When working at the heart of partnership, more is achieved through a “hosting and facilitating” role than by trying to drive through a pre-conceived model of what should be. So keep an open mind, and give stakeholders (at all levels) a chance to contribute and to share their observations of what could be.

Giving people in all parts of the partnership opportunities and permission to “fix” parts of the system that they can see are stuck can be a great way of maximising good will and energy, and also ensures that those people remain “invested” in the change that you are seeking to achieve.

In our hub project, we were also surprised to see skills that staff had that were never required in their “day jobs” suddenly coming to the fore and contributing to the project. We had interior designers, project managers, fundraisers, lobbyists, procurement leads, risk assessors and communications managers in our ranks across the partnership that we never knew we had! 


Celebrate everything! (Generate short-term wins.)

Many change models stress the importance of grasping “the low hanging fruit” – getting some quick wins under the corporate belt. It is undoubtedly true that success breeds success, so celebrate successes across your partnership – make sure that each partner has an opportunity to share what it does and has achieved, and certainly celebrate your joint outcomes – but don’t chase short-term wins that potentially distract or deviate from the longer-term objective.


There’s always more! (Sustain acceleration.)

Change is constant - always be prepared to see your partnership (and its projects) grow, or contract; formalise, or deformalise; become more active, embrace periods of consolidation and reflection. Adaptability will be the key, and responsiveness and flexibility will be the secret of momentum. There is always more to do – and modern infrastructure should always be on the look-out for the next social challenge within our communities to focus our attention on. 


Culture eats strategy for breakfast (Institute change)

Peter Drucker, the business leadership guru, is often credited with having said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Whether or not he actually said it, the point made is right: Strategy can look great on paper, but it is the culture of an organisation (or a partnership) that will determine how things get done. It is no accident that this step is the last one in Kotter’s model – culture is the most resilient part of an organisation to change, and it takes time to get right. However, once the change process itself becomes culturally embedded within your partnership, that’s when you know that change can be sustained. It’s an important goal to aim for.


Page last edited Jul 10, 2017 History

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