What’s the Secret to Collaboration?

By: John Sampson on December 4th, 2019

Understanding, Trust and Transparency: The Fertile Ground for Economic Success

“I see no signs that this will work in Northeast Indiana,” was the rather terse response I said to my wife in the fall of 2006. Her question? After almost a year of weekly commutes to Fort Wayne from Fishers, she rightly asked, “Is this a real deal, or are we just passing time?”

That was then. This is now, and regional economic development is working in the 11 counties of Northeast Indiana in a way I thought not possible, or could even imagine, in 2006.

Why is "it" working for us? What does "it" mean for our future economic viability?

Collaboration Creating Collective Impact

“It” is collaboration. Collaboration is the way we work together in Northeast Indiana in a way that is distinctive and powerful. It differentiates our region on many levels. While it has numerous collateral benefits like building trust, breaking down barriers and building stronger relationships, it is no “silver bullet.” Collaboration requires intentional behaviors practiced over time and applied with patience and persistence. The positive benefits may not be direct or immediate because true collaboration doesn’t just “happen” no matter how sincere our intentions might be.

We used to laugh when it was said, “collaboration is an unnatural act by nonconsenting adults.” We still chuckle about that, too, but now we have come to appreciate that this quip is more truth than humor. Collaboration has become so trendy that the label is plugged into resumes as if it is a character trait or a brand identity. The truth is collaboration is a devotion to principles between unique partners rather than a tool in our hip pocket to be used as a hammer or screwdriver. 

While collaboration is not easy, it is not exclusive. With understanding, trust and transparency focused on a worthy challenge of mutual interest, collaboration can indeed “happen” to achieve remarkable progress not otherwise possible. And, yes, we have become authentic practitioners of the “real deal” collaboration. 

Otis White is the president of Civic Strategies, Inc., a collaborative and strategic planning firm that works with cities and civic organizations. He describes collaboration best in his short article, “How Collaboration Happens.” According to White, the basic ingredients to achieve conditions necessary for collaboration are understanding, trust and transparency between participants. If these conditions are in place, White insists that collaboration only occurs when the partners share an opportunity or challenge of mutual interest. In my favorite form, it looks like this.

(Und + Tru + Tra) + MI = Collaboration

As an engineer by training and experience, I was captivated by his simple equation to help appreciate the requisite fundamentals for collaboration. It did not take long to realize that the fiercely independent Hoosiers of this region would require a stiff dose of declining economic reality and a steady therapy of collaborative medicine to achieve the necessary outcomes of increased prosperity and vibrant, long-term economic growth. Yes, an equation to achieve just the right recipe would do the trick. If only it were that simple.

“Collaborations don’t actually happen until there’s the fourth element, which is the recognition of mutual interest. This involves someone spotting an opportunity for collaboration, calculating its benefits to all and persuading others to give it a try.”

In our regional experiences, opportunities of mutual interest are objectives that any one of us could not accomplish alone. We began in desperation, or at least a clear recognition, that if we intended to move forward, it was essential to put aside our differences, build understanding, trust and transparency to confront a mutual interest of sizeable proportions. 

Several notable achievements are now a matter of history that would not have been accomplished if we had not been practicing the process of understanding, trust and transparency to steadily build our skills in collaboration. Surely, neither the $30 million Lafayette Center Road extension nor the $42 million Regional Cities grant were achievable alone. And, what about the new Promenade Park, our outstanding regional asset in downtown Fort Wayne? Those achievements were difficult, expensive and worthy efforts, but none could be accomplished by just one of our communities in isolation.

Aside from these major funding projects, numerous collaborative organizations are working routinely on projects and processes of mutual interest. If for no other reason, they are evidence of an ongoing commitment to understanding, building trust and transparency between private, public and not-for-profit entities. The collaborative relationships between employers, Northeast Indiana Works, the Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana, Northeast Indiana Innovation Center, local economic development professionals, the Mayors and Commissioners Caucus, K-12 education superintendents, higher education executives and the convention and visitors bureaus have completely transformed our ability to confront and solve huge challenges important to future economic growth.

The Harsh Realities of Economic Competition

Why is collaboration critically important for Fort Wayne and the 11 counties of Northeast Indiana? There are two harsh realities we must recognize, embrace and use to our advantage—brand identity and scale.

Every time I travel to Chicago, I am reminded that no matter how much I love my home in Northeast Indiana, very few people know anything about us or where in the world Fort Wayne is even located. While our region is only a 3-hour drive from Chicago, I find myself repeatedly explaining that Northeast Indiana is NOT northwest Indiana and that we are further east than Gary. We must be relentless in securing and building brand recognition and identity.

We are competing for relevance in a ruthless global marketplace. With the advent of the internet and global logistics, materials, goods and services can be delivered across the globe from practically anywhere. The sister city to Fort Wayne in China is Taizhou with a vibrant and growing population of 6 million residents. Not unlike Fort Wayne in Indiana, Taizhou is merely the second largest city in the Zhejiang province. The scale of our region matters as we globally compete for the best business and talent.

The premise here is that collaboration matters when confronting challenges in magnitude and complexity that leave the objectives unattainable by us as individuals or entities.

Our regional goals for the year 2030 will simply not be attained on our current trajectory. Significant challenges remain before us that will test our will and commitment to working together. It will require tough decisions on potentially divisive issues with always limited resources. If we choose to not confront the tough issues like population growth, workforce readiness, adequate housing stock in rural communities, broadband availability and access and transportation infrastructure like U.S. 30, we can be sure that other larger cities and regions will choose to confront and solve this issue and happily take our place, and jobs, in the national and global marketplace.

Understanding, trust, transparency and mutual interest, that’s the secret sauce for collaboration. Together, we make it happen! Through collaboration and working together, we secure our region’s economic future! Will you join in this war for economic growth?

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