Collaboration: Still the Region’s Competitive Asset?

Collaboration is a tool with power to move agendas. It has been the hallmark of this region, a place where scarce resources made it necessary to work together to get things done. Seeing the water along West Bay instead of factories is the result of a 60-year collaboration between individual business owners, the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, the Traverse City Convention and Visitor's Bureau, the former Industrial Council, the City of Traverse City, Traverse City Light & Power, the state of Michigan, Rotary, Northwestern Michigan College and the Regional Land Conservancy.

Real, purposeful collaboration is awesome. Traverse City-based Dewar Sloan writes that collaboration is most effective "when process and program leaders are centered on the critical issues of trust, power, risk and value." The "good ol' boys" involved in many of the region's high-profile accomplishments between 1950 and 1990 showcased a form of collaboration among representatives of organizations who sought to better the region and who trusted each other, shared power, took risks and engaged. It had its faults, but things got done quickly and with impact.

Today, we revel in praise of our region's effective collaborations. Leaders and leading institutions wrap dialogue in the context of collaboration, but one could reasonably question whether or not the bulk of our collaborations are authentic or impactful.

To my mind, collaboration – like sustainability, entrepreneur and transparency – has lost its grit. It has been replaced by the notion that the bigger the group, the better the collaboration. The result? The emphasis has turned to process more than outcomes.

Collaboration, whether used by the good ol' boys or more constructively – as in the Council of Governments' New Designs for Growth or Grand Vision – should be a tool to create organizational synergy, expand resources, accelerate impact and create value.

Unfortunately, it is becoming a buzzword used to convene diverse interests in order to achieve dialogue and hopefully reach consensus on an outcome that may or may not happen. What is generally regarded as collaboration is often an onerous, expensive, and time-consuming process with little accountability. Simply convening people to gather input is a far different proposition than collaboration, which, in contrast, has a conclusion, a product, and a tangible result of the process.

The point isn't that collaboration is dead. There are many examples of where it is working. Nor am I saying an open, inclusive public process for major initiatives is a bad thing. To the contrary, an inclusive public process is the best of things and highly desirable. Unfortunately, that process is often mistaken as collaboration, and the next step – authentic collaboration among individuals and groups that can actually implement an initiative – is often dismissed due to a lack of trust, power, willingness to assume risk, and/or definition of a clear and achievable value. In sum, it's just too hard.

As a region, we must strive to take the final, most difficult step in achieving our goals and embrace true collaboration that takes us farther faster, encouraging those engaged rather than vilifying them and assuming the worst. This region is still better at collaboration than most, but we must put the teeth back in the process, finish what we start, engage with a sense of urgency, and measure the results of our processes. That imperative is the basis of the Chamber's current strategic plan and is what drives its actions as it seeks to grow business and build community.

Luciani is president and CEO of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce.