Think outside the 'blue box': three reasons it matters for authentic collaboration


A social policy whisper piece by Robyn Keast on collaboration.

Collaboration remains the gold star approach for people and organisations looking to work together and is a mainstay strategy for social policy and service delivery.  

Despite its enduring popularity as discussed in previous blogs and articles[1], collaboration is hard to achieve and even harder to sustain, with between 50-75% of such arrangements failing to reach their full potential or failing outright.  Given the growing body of knowledge from research and practice about collaboration, including its processes and functions, it is perplexing that we still can’t make it work.  

Some real insights into this dilemma emerged from a recent series of workshops on integrated working and collaborative practice, where a new, expanded model of inter-organisational relationships (IORs) – the ‘5 Cs’ –  was introduced and showcased (see Diagram 1 below). 


This new diagram expands the well-known 3Cs framework (cooperation, coordination and collaboration) to take in the full range of inter-organisational relationships including the book-ending elements of competition and conglomeration (mergers and amalgamations) – both of which are increasingly prominent in contemporary social policy formulations and funding regimes (and will be the subject of future blogs). The expanded 5Cs model places competition at the fragmented end of the IOR continuum[i] through the 3Cs (which are located in the middle), to conglomeration at the far end denoting the assembly of components into a single entity.

In a further departure from the earlier 3Cs diagrams, which relied on word descriptions to differentiate the type and strength of relationships between entities, the new 5Cs diagram added two sets of graphics. These visual representations were included so that the differences between each of the Cs could be seen and understood clearly and quickly.

The first set of infographics was designed to highlight and re-enforce the different processes that shape and facilitate relationships and actions, such that:

·      competition was depicted as formal contracts and money exchanges

·      cooperation shows information exchanges

·      coordination was styled as working to pre-set goals and joint planning and programs

·      collaboration highlighted a stronger inter-personal focus and the sharing/pooling resources, and ideas  for change

·      consolidation, presented the merging of people/agencies into a single entity under the remit of one element

Accompanying each of these ‘process’ graphics was a second set of graphics that relied on a series of boxes structured to emphasise the level and direction of the connective relationships. Such that for:

·      competition the boxes were separate, with detached and/or intermittent connections

·      cooperation showed boxes as loosely connected, but with some order, suggesting periodic interactions

·      coordination boxes were a little closer together, displaying its horizontal and/or vertical potential and ordered connections

·      collaboration boxes showed tighter, yet equal connections across members, depicting a flatter and flexible structure, and

·      consolidation boxes stacked up into a vertical pile, indicating a unitary structure.   

The colour of the boxes and their positioning was quite arbitrary, with no real meaning attached, other than to be expressive; that is, the colours were used simply to show different bodies in the relationship with no power differentials.  Both sets of graphics were added to provide extra description and meaning to the original diagram, fleshing out the written word descriptions and making it easier for the audience to grasp the message that each IOR has a different purpose and therefore different levels of connections and supporting processes.

Demonstrations of the expanded diagram resulted in noticeable variances in the way in which different people in the audiences engaged with and comprehended the diagram and where they subsequently directed their attention. Most people in the audience focused in on the words and infographics [widgets] describing the various processes, which was the intention of the diagram. Others, however, directed their attention almost solely on the boxes, particularly the blue boxes, and their perceived position in each of the examples. This fascination inevitably led to questions around positions, such as: “Am I the blue box?” and/or “are we the blue box?” or deterministic statements such as “We should be the blue box!”

This fixation on position or needing to “be the blue box”, rather than concentrating on understanding the processes to be enacted to achieve collaboration, provides some good insights on why realising genuine collaboration is so difficult.

First, concentrating on individual structural positions, such as the blue box, runs counter to one of the guiding principles of collaboration – that of shared power.  There is no doubt that people hold different levels and types of power in collaborations. However, this is to be used for the overall good, not to advance individual agendas or to control for certain outcomes.  When members are used to being in control it’s hard to move into a genuinely collaborative space, to ‘step-back’ and let the collaboration process run its course, where-ever that may take the outcomes. It’s especially difficult to ‘let go’ of the power to influence outcomes, encourage and actively facilitate other members to step-up to take-on leadership functions when their specialist knowledge, skills and resources are required. Genuine collaboration acknowledged, values and relies on the experience and contribution of others to better understand complex problems, and the need for all to be involved in the creation of solutions that not only are appropriate but are implemented and sustained.

Second, in collaboration strong inter-personal relationships are vital, as they are the connective tissue that holds people together and coalesces efforts and resources to the agreed goal – even when the going gets tough. Privileging position over process [and relationships] undermines the collaborative intent and can limit potential outcomes. Paying attention to the process factors that nurture, facilitate and leverage relationships is a key function in collaborations. Blue Box thinking highlights a disconnect between the status quo and the processes that shift the thinking, behaving and expectations toward genuine collaboration. Failure to pay attention and direct efforts upfront and throughout collaborative endeavours are argued to be a large part of the ‘failure’ equation.  




[i] NB the framework or model is an idealised representation, as the reality is often that of mixed modes and rarely are there pure relationships. 

Graphics by Hannah Murphy