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To collaborate or not to collaborate?

This blog is the third in a series written by Dr Carol Jacklin-Jarvis. Here, she discusses the dilemmas of leading across boundaries. 

Collaboration is costly – in terms of time and energy at the very least.  Research repeatedly shows that formal and informal partnerships, joint working groups, and projects take long hours of negotiation to establish, and then to maintain.  Over the long-term, working together may reduce overheads, but in the shorter-term, there is often considerable expenditure of time and energy in building relationships, reaching shared understanding, developing processes of communication and decision-making. 

All of these have a very real cost to collaborating organisations – and often to the individuals who spend long hours negotiating across professional, organisational, and sector boundaries.  This might be ok, if we could guarantee that the outcomes of such collaborative endeavours will be good not only for the organisation, but, more importantly, for the (voluntary) organisation’s mission and the community it serves.  Sadly, though, research also tells us that the outcomes of collaboration are uncertain.

Leading across boundaries

From a leadership perspective, this brings us back to the dilemmas, trade-offs, and compromises that seem to be inherent in leading across boundaries – organisational, sectoral and otherwise.  Vangen & Huxham (2003) describe some of the dilemmas that face partnership managers – for example whether to manage to the partnership according an ideology of participation, which takes time and facilitation, or adopt a more pragmatic approach to make things happen in a reasonable time frame. 

In other words, there are often (at least) two reasonable responses to the challenges of collaborating across boundaries (Huxham and Beech, 2003) – the task for leaders is to determine which of these responses is best for the specific context – or whether there is a third ‘good enough’ response.  Based on my own research (Jacklin-Jarvis 2015), I’ve argued that the dilemmas voluntary sector leaders face when collaborating with public agencies take place in a context where the ideas and values associated with ‘voluntary sector identity’ play a key role: ideas around inclusiveness, social value, and wellbeing, and a commitment to the ‘voluntary’ in voluntary organisations. 

The question then becomes, how far are we willing to compromise that identity in order to make things happen in a pragmatic way?  And when should we be willing to withdraw from collaboration rather than compromise core values?  Inevitably, this is a task of weighing, whilst trying to find a third alternative which balances the scales – albeit with some compromise.

‘Good enough’: insights from social work

As a former social worker, I find the concept of ‘good enough’ a helpful one.  For case-holding social workers, there is rarely an ideal resolution to the complex family challenges that their clients encounter.  However, once we accept the inevitability of ‘good enough’, we find ways forward for children and families encountering the most challenging circumstances.  These ways forward often involve multiple players, with different skill sets, and the allocation of resources from multiple sources to address different elements of a family’s circumstances. 

For all the complexities of collaboration from the perspective of individuals and organisations, Chris Huxham reminds us (Huxham, 1996) that there is a moral issue to be faced when tackling big social challenges: child poverty, the refugee crisis, care of the elderly amongst many others.  If no one organisation can tackle these issues alone (and we see this over and over again), then it is imperative for those organisations to collaborate, even if this comes at a cost – to collaborating organisations and individuals.  For example, the choice to collaborate might mean choosing not to compete with each other for funding, but rather to accept a division of the funding pot between a coalition of organisations.  Or it might involve accepting a model of care that isn’t our preferred one, so that we can act together.  Or it might involve a rather different approach to volunteering than the one the organisation has upheld throughout its history. Of course such compromises are often particularly controversial in a sector which is always so sensitive to threats to prized notions of independence and autonomy.

The question for many leaders and those they lead is: how far are we willing to compromise, what kind of trade-offs are reasonable, and when does collaboration simply threaten our identity too significantly to be worth the potential benefits?


Huxham, C. (1996) Creative collaborative advantage, London, Sage.

Huxham, C. & Beech, N. (2003) 'Contrary prescriptions: recognizing good practice tensions in management', Organization Studies, vol.24, no.1 pp.69-93.

Jacklin-Jarvis, C. (2015) 'Collaborating across sector boundaries: a story of tensions and dilemmas', Voluntary Sector Review, vol.6no.3 pp.285-302

Vangen, S. & Huxham, C. (2003) 'Enacting leadership for collaborative advantage: dilemmas of ideology and pragmatism in the activities of partnership managers', British Journal of Management, vol.14, S61-S76.



1st September 2016

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