Beyond Collaboration: the Generative Force of UNITY 

Collective Impact. Return on Investment. Search for Excellence. Wisdom of Teams. Moving from Good to Great. Creative Collaboration. Now, more than ever, the critical importance of working well together is ‘in the air.’ No matter the sector (private, nonprofit, or public) organization leaders recognize they must focus on value and how to generate it. And with good reason. As the leader who guided a major organization turnaround observed:

In the end an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.
Lou Gerstner, Author – Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?

Every organization and every alliance, coalition, and partnership is looking for the ‘1+1 = 3’ effect by aligning limited human and financial resources in a way that applies leverage for superior results. With so much talk, so much need, so much interest, and so much effort, why are the results of these attempts to join and work together often mediocre and sometimes terrible?

According to experienced analysts, 80-90% of business mergers fail to achieve the intended unity to reach the stated goals of the merger. In 25 years of nonprofit consulting work with individual organizations and with alliances, coalitions, and other inter-organizational collaborations, I can confidently state that there is a big gap between how much people talk about the importance of collaboration and the reality about successful practice.

The language we use matters. Collaboration is a good, basic word that simply means to work together in the sense of some degree of teamwork and partnership. However, it just doesn’t measure up to the challenge of producing 1+1 = 3. UNITY is a better word that includes the capacity for collaboration plus deeper dimensions of shared commitment, cohesion, and creativity that can generate superior results.  UNITY indicates a state of being joined together in common purpose, i.e. unified through agreement, trust, respect, harmony, and solidarity. These connective elements of UNITY provide a strength that is more resilient and durable than ‘collaboration.’ Many organizations that talk collaboration fail in the ‘walk’ because they are not truly UNIFIED in shared purpose and level of commitment. They lack the strength of connection to remain together, resist forces of disunity, meet challenges, bridge differences, and move the mission forward.

In intra- and inter-organizational efforts where the spirit and reality of UNITY is present, collaboration becomes more powerful and sustainable over time. My experience is that UNITY can make possible what was previously thought to be impossible.

Before considering the framework to build UNITY, it is necessary to address some common misconceptions:

  • Just think and act like a sports team The lessons for successful sports teams do not easily transfer to organizational environments. Yet, they are often used to cheerlead and pump people up in poorly designed efforts at ‘team-building’ with half-hearted follow through.
  • Unity means unanimity   Authentic UNITY is not about conformity. True unity is not groupthink where differences are minimized to maintain ‘agreement.’ Diversity in seeing, thinking, and understanding adds quality and depth to a genuine unified effort.
  • ‘Kumbaya’   Retreats and other heart-felt moments of coming together can develop a heightened sense of connectedness and common purpose. However, without a shared framework that guides everyone to convert the new, positive awareness into sustainable day-to-day behavior, the good feeling usually fades away, leaving behind cynicism that future efforts to improve the ability to work together are naïve and a waste of time.
  • It’s an impossible dream   Many people have never had a solid experience of the enduring power of organizational UNITY. Without a clear image of what UNITY looks like and how it can be developed, they remain unengaged in the practical work of building UNITY.

Every leader has the opportunity to embrace UNITY as a practical, creative strategy to develop capacity inside an individual organization, department, or team, or in a partnership between organizations. Recognize that UNITY is a valuable, practical asset.

  • UNITY is a ‘mission’ multiplier that magnifies existing capacity to increase results by framing everything as ‘learning together.’
  • In good times, UNITY is a high octane fuel that accelerates coordination and execution to move forward at the ‘Speed of Trust.’
  • In hard times of disruption, change, and uncertainty, UNITY is an ‘all-weather plan B’ that assures the capacity to respond effectively because you are unified, ready to adapt, and can move together as one.

UNITY is magical, but it is neither magic nor an accident. It only emerges and sustains because leaders guide others to invest time, energy, and focused effort to build the framework that develops the necessary conditions.

  • Mission Drive   UNITY of purpose begins with a brief, clear, memorable statement of WHY the organization or collaboration exists. In less than 15 words, the mission lays the foundation for UNITY by bringing everyone together with a common reference point of orientation and motivation. Mission animates the heart. Meaning is a driving force.
  • Psychological Safety   The practice of UNITY over time requires full engagement and participation. Leaders and managers must consistently act to sustain a climate of goodwill, trust, and universal respect for diverse perspectives, talents, and contributions. This climate removes fear of embarrassment, ridicule, or punishment and promotes engagement, cooperation, and creative ideas.
  • Vision Pull   A common destination shows everyone the direction, an inspiring image of how things will look when we fulfill the mission. This vision is, as Steve Jobs has said, a ‘pulling force’ that focuses the passion of purpose, cultivates a growth mindset, and inspires innovation. Some organizations have a permanent vision that is not reachable in a decade or a life time. A 3-5 year ‘horizon’ vision aligns with the permanent vision and focuses the unified effort on a visible destination within reach.
  • Behavioral ‘Guard Rails’   There is a clear set of guiding values and action principles that clarify expectations for the work you do, the way you treat those you serve, and the way you treat each other. These norms of consistent, constructive behavior keep everyone aligned on the road forward. Leaders and managers must set the example and hold others accountable.

Don’t underestimate the value of an investment in UNITY. Increase your progress in good times. Maintain your capacity to navigate change and overcome difficulty in hard times.