Collaboration for a Water-Wise World | Part 1

Go to any major water conference and you will hear the word ‘collaboration’ in almost every presentation. Water professionals recognise that working with others is essential in the 21st Century water sector. But the evidence suggests that few are confident about what collaboration is or how to do it. This series intends to identify the main roadblocks that sabotage authentic collaboration in the water sector and keys to overcoming them in order to develop a collaborative mindset.

This first blog focuses on the key mindsets and habits that impede genuine collaboration.

The next blogs in this series will explore in more depth the skills needed to be a true collaborator, such as what it takes to let go of control, to partner with others and to share accountability and ownership.

You know collaboration is important, but do you know how to do it?

The challenges of managing water are well recognised. Protecting river basins in an urbanising world, maintaining environmental flows, meeting SDGs, reducing energy use in the water sector, managing cross-border tensions in a drying climate – these are just some of the complex issues that can only be tackled together. Yet as a sector our understanding of the what, when and how of collaboration lags far behind our technical capability.

This is a big risk to our collective efforts to manage water better.

But collaboration across researchers, organisations and sectors is something we all do, isn’t it? Up to a point, yes. But beyond that point there is a world of possibility that most of us in the sector aren’t aware of and don’t yet have the skills or self-awareness to tap into.

Collaboration is not…

Collaboration is not getting in a room together and having a meeting. Collaboration is not asking others what they think so that you can design a solution that better meets their needs. Collaboration is not teaching and training others, sharing our expertise with them so that they are able to help us better implement a project. Each of these things is very necessary and very business as usual. They do not represent authentic collaboration.

Collaboration is…

Collaboration is working with others to co-create something that none of us could create alone. Collaboration is the way we work in the face of high uncertainty and complexity. It is working across a system, which means working with a diversity of people, experiences and knowledge. In short, collaboration is doing ‘with’, rather than ‘to’ others, in order to find novel solutions to complex challenges.

At this point you may be feeling that you recognise these ideas, and that this is how the sector works. But I would challenge that. While many of us believe that we collaborate, in reality most of us operate from a firmly business as usual mindset that works against our desire to collaborate effectively.


Mindset: the key capability

In my work with water professionals and others over many years, I have come to realise that collaboration is all about mindset; how we are thinking and how that drives behaviour. My inescapable conclusion is that while we say “collaboration” we tend to do something more like standard project management. And the difference is mindset.

Here are some key mindset elements without which authentic collaboration is almost impossible:

The ability to not control. The desire to control a project so that both process and outcome align with our view of the way the world works, is a very strong human desire. Maintaining control usually feels necessary in order to ensure we get outcomes, but this need makes it almost impossible for us to let go, to share control, to step back so that others can get their hands on the levers. And if our collaborators don’t have their hands on the levers, can we truly say we are collaborating?

The ability to be ignorant. “I don’t know” are the collaborator’s most powerful words. I don’t know how…., I don’t know what…., I don’t know who, or when or…? Every time we admit our lack of certainty, to ourselves and to others, we breathe life into the collaboration. Conversely, every time we have ‘the answer’ about process or content, or data, or technology, or people, we invalidate the collaboration. Sure, there are things we know, but collaboration is about acknowledging the things we don’t and can’t know. And the truth is, that’s hard for people who are used to being rewarded for their expertise. Our inability to be ignorant gets in the way of collaboration every time.

The ability to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is at the heart of any collaboration, which requires us to do that very difficult thing – lower our defences and expose ourselves to the risk of pain. It feels risky to lend ‘my’ idea to others, because they might do something different with it. It feels risky to invite others in when my uncertainty means I might look incapable. It feels risky to acknowledge the views of others, with whom I strongly disagree. It feels risky to take time to build relationships, when I’m nervous about missing milestones. It feels risky to let collaborators struggle together when a safer options seems to be to solve it for them. Yet collaboration requires us to take these and other risks and it is our subconscious need to keep ourselves safe that gets in the way.

These are just a few of the mindset elements that limit our effectiveness as collaborators. While the future of water in this complex world requires us to work together differently, our ongoing failure to shift our thinking continues to get in the way. Until we build new habits our collaboration talk won’t be matched by our walk, and our vision for better water management won’t be realised.

Stay tuned for the next blogs in this series that will focus on the steps for success and fleshing out the skills to let go, admit you do not know, and be vulnerable – the essence of collaboration.



Stuart Waters and Lisa Andrews

Stuart Waters is Managing Director at Twyfords Stuart provides strategic advice to organisations to help them improve their decision making capability in the face of complex dilemmas. Stuart works particularly in complex situations involving many st... Read full biography