3 surprising observations about collaboration from developing the local gov IMS

Collaborative leadership is an attitude based capability

Since joining dxw, I’ve been lucky enough to work on a variety of different projects with different clients.  Each fascinating in their own way.  But one that has really struck me is the Local Gov Income Management System (IMS) project, working with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and Barnsley and Dorset Councils. 

The project aims to reduce the reliance on and limitations of external suppliers by delivering a fully supported, open-source IMS – developed by local councils for local councils.  dxw’s role is to guide the strategic direction of product development and lead on stakeholder engagement. 

Delivering this task is not only cross-organisational, it’s multidisciplinary too. With every person in the team playing their unique role to get the job done.  Seeing how this team operates has really got me thinking about how we understand the term ‘collaboration’ and how ‘collaborative leadership’ is something completely different.  

3 surprising things I’ve observed about collaboration

  1. Collaborative leadership is more than just ‘working together’.  
  2. There’s no place for formal hierarchy. 
  3. It’s not about achieving consensus.

Observation #1 – Collaborative leadership is more than just ‘working together’  

More often than not, the mark of successful collaboration is getting something done, be it within or across teams and organisations. But how that happens isn’t always given much thought. 

During my time on this project, I’ve noticed how much ‘getting something done’ is a truly collective endeavour – sharing ideas, listening to each other, building it up into something great.  It’s made me realise that, despite collaboration looking successful from the outside, it so often revolves around individual vision – the loudest voices making their case, trying to win everyone else over.  But the reality is that truly harnessing the collective intelligence of a group to meet a shared goal is, dare I say it, always going to yield a better solution.

Observation #2 – There’s no place for formal hierarchy

For an outsider looking in on the IMS team meetings, I think they’d be hard pushed to identify who’s formally in charge.  And that’s so important.  It means everyone is free to embrace and exercise their expertise without fear of saying the wrong thing or looking silly.  All views are considered valid and valuable.  Of course, informal hierarchies naturally appear – perhaps based on level of experience, expertise or even preference, but the absence of being able to pull rank really does change the dynamic of the conversation… and for the better.  

Observation #3 – It’s not about achieving consensus

I can’t count the number of times I’ve experienced the concepts of collective decision making and consensus being conflated.  But in order to deliver the best solutions and keep moving forward, it’s impossible to have everyone agree on everything.  The quality of interaction between team members on this project means decisions are often arrived at naturally.  Is there debate? Often.  Is there much fuss?  Hardly ever. 

While everyone may share a perspective, there is an understanding of the boundaries of role and expertise.  So those who are less sure on a particular topic are more confident to take themselves out of the running for the role of ‘chief decision maker’, when they recognise there’s a more qualified person for the job.  

Bottom line

Collaborative leadership is an attitude-based capability.  Rather than stemming from the ability to traditionally consult and influence others to gain buy-in, it’s based on a fundamental mindset (we’re stronger together than we are apart), way of being (trust, respect and humility) and aspiration that’s shared among the group.