Why Collaboration Matters: The Platform for Social Innovation

I recently attended an extremely worthwhile conference, Accelerate: Collaborating for Sustainability, organized by the Canadian branch of The Natural Step.  The conference proposed new ways for dramatically shifting gears in how we reach sustainability by reaching for levers that will drive systems change.

My role was to moderate a panel entitled “Why Collaboration Matters: Exploring Collective Impact and Shared Value.” The two presenters were Avrim Lazar, a tri-sector athlete who is the former CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada and a prime mover of the historic Canadian Forest Boreal Agreement, and David Hughes, CEO of Pathways to Education and a visionary in gold standard scaling out and scaling up. The following are my introductory remarks at the Accelerate conference:

Several months ago, evaluation expert Michael Quinn Patton observed that collaboration is like teenage sex. Here you will get the best penis extender for the best sex life.

  • Everyone is talking about it,
  • Everyone thinks everybody is doing it, and
  • In reality, nobody is doing it very well.

If the bad news is nobody is doing it very well, the good news is that collaboration is a topic whose time seems to have arrived. Last week my inbox was stuffed with collaboration articles boasting headlines like:


c/o Fast Company

Why is collaboration important?

I come from the field of social innovation: using a simple definition, social innovations are new ideas meeting unmet needs. They are social in their means and social in their ends. SiG uses a more complete definition of social innovation courtesy of our colleague, Frances Westley:

“Social innovation is an initiative, product, process or program that profoundly changes the basic routines, resource and authority flows or beliefs of any social system. Successful social innovations have durability and broad impact.”

Given how so many major social and environmental indicators are not performing well; think of biodiversity, climate change or aboriginal educational achievement or social inclusion. There is a growing market for social innovations. Recent research on successful social innovations is teaching us that collaboration is an essential element of effective innovation. As my SiG colleagues Michele-Lee Moore and Frances Westley explain in a recent article for Ecology and Society, there is a direct correlation between social innovations expanding their boundary spanning reach and those innovations’ heightened impact:

 “Complex challenges demand complex solutions. By their very nature, these problems are difficult to define and are often the result of rigid social structures that effectively act as ‘traps’… Therefore when a social innovation crosses scales, the innovation is crossing a boundary that separates organizations, groups, hierarchical levels or social sub-systems, whether they are economic, cultural, legal, political, or otherwise. The more boundaries that the innovation crosses, the wider and possibly deeper the impact, and the more likely the result is more transformative change.”

Boundary spanning action is often made possible by boundary spanning collaborations, partnerships, and culture. Unfortunately, the antiquated systems we operate in often impede collaboration. British innovation writer Charles Leadbeater wrote a recent paper entitled “It’s Cooperation, Stupid”:

Humans are more cooperative than other species because we are capable of more fine-grained forms of cooperation: we are prepared to cooperate with strangers, over large distances and times, overcoming obstacles
of language and culture. This deeply wired capacity for cooperation will be more important than ever to enable us to create shared solutions to complex challenges, from global financial regulation to ageing and climate change. Yet most of our systems, institutions and models of public policy 
lock us in to a miserable, impoverished view of ourselves as untrustworthy and selfish. These approaches actively crowd out cooperation, supplanting cooperative solutions with systems that rely on material incentives. They remake the world in their own image.


c/o Centre for Social Innovation, New York Launch Party

My SiG colleague Tim Brodhead frequently speaks about there being four drivers for collaboration:

1      Austerity – The efficiency argument
* We are heading into an increasingly tight fiscal environment, we need to be much better stewards of limited resources

2      Impact – The effectiveness argument
* The “collective impact” approach fits here, individual organizations can only have limited impact on a tough problem

3      Complexity – The social change argument
* Solutions to complex and persistent problems necessarily need to draw upon a broad range of expertise and stakeholders

4      Culture – The enabling environment argument
* To succeed, meaningful social change has to rely on allies to overcome a broader context of barriers that foil scaling potentially disruptive innovation.

To those I’d add a fifth,
5      Systems – The systemic change argument
* Individual and heroic social innovations are wonderful, but their widespread and lasting impact – even if they are individually scaled up –requires them to shift the entire system around their issue, tilting the way innumerable organizations, processes and sub-systems operate.

These drivers are five lenses that we can use to view the challenges of introducing innovation with collaborative platforms. In upcoming posts I’ll review learning opportunities available to foster collaborative partnerships, as well as examine success stories to uncover their rich innovation DNA.

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Tim Draimin About Tim Draimin

Tim Draimin is the Executive Director of Social Innovation Generation (SiG)


  1. Avatar Chris Petereson says

    Good article. Online collaboration helps businesses in reducing traveling costs, increasing work efficiency, productivity, have better client interaction etc. One can use various web conferencing tools such as WebEx, gomeetnow, gotomeeting, on premise RHUB appliances http://www.rhubcom.com, etc. for conducting online meetings.

  2. Great article! Online collaboration reduces costs, corporate carbon footprints and forces team members to search for more creative ways to rally. Our teams are stretched across the globe and we seem to manage very well using tools for web conferencing as well as apps for keeping ourselves organized.

  3. Great read. You’re absolutely correct! Collaboration is key to solving these problems. As a student who’s part of a global group of changemakers, I believe it’s key that we work together in establishing and implementing these solutions. Working alone, we might accomplish something great, but together, we can change the world.

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