Features: March 26th, 2004

Resolving the Dramas of Collaboration

By James W Bryant.

Reproduced by permission of the Public Management and Policy Association.

Modernisation agendas in the public sector continue to be fatally flawed by the dominant belief that transformation is exclusively driven by ideas. Yet the Enlightenment assumption that change is a rational process ignores the human agencies by which it must be accomplished. This ’implementation gap’ was forcefully exposed in a recent project i that I undertook with colleagues from the Change Management Research Centre (CMRC) in the health sector. We confronted very senior health service managers with the challenge of multi-agency collaboration in a simulated health economy. Their considered responses were professional and entirely appropriate to the situation. Yet they left hanging the critical issues of achieving change – in this instance in shaping fresh attitudes to clinical governance – and saw their role fulfilled once they had issued relevant directives. Cascaded across the service, such a stance reduces ambitious political crusades and high-sounding ideas to the routine execution of planned tasks and a ‘tick box’ mentality. Mechanistic evaluation completes the cycle.

Mind over matter

It is natural that the political rhetoric of the debating chamber emphasises the primacy of ‘mind over matter’ and encourages the expression of ‘headline grabbing’ slogans for dramatic change. It is natural too that public service managers see their function as being to drive and control (and to be seen as driving and controlling) change through ordered programmes of development. However, this is a uniquely damaging combination of philosophies and practices, which doggedly refuses to acknowledge the chaotic, ambiguous, unpredictable characteristics of present-day society, and which fails to come to terms, for example, with diversity, with multiple stakeholders or with dispersed control. And as Karl Marx once wrote ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’.

Managing Complexity

Staceyii and other complexity theorists have advanced an alternative approach that can promote innovative behaviours and encourage generative relationships. It does this not by imposing control, reducing variation and erasing resistance to change, but by following natural attractor patterns, learning from the unexpected and providing minimum specifications rather than detailed targets and plans. Governments and their agents are wary of such thinking through fear of relinquishing control, yet the promise of the complexity approach and its view of society as a complex adaptive system is that learning, evolution and adaptation can produce far more effective outcomes that the illusory equilibria of the Cartesian mindset. The implications for managers of adopting this new stance are iii:

  • to encourage participation – but recognise that this creates a contested arena
  • to exploit variety in wisdom and vision – but realise that values and perspectives may be irreconcilable
  • to accept fuzziness and paradox – and thereby live with continuous but creative tension
  • to value and put trust in process: in becoming, not being – and so facilitate and listen rather than direct and demand.

At the CMRC, we have been working with one framework based upon these precepts – and outlined below – that can help to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality.

Partners in Conflict

Managing relationships successfully is fundamental to the transformation of public services. Relationships with all those in the ‘value web’ – customers/users, suppliers, competitors and complementors – shape the development of systems. But invariably all these stakeholders aspire to different futures. Inevitably there will be conflict. This is a healthy and positive sign. Conflict shows that people care about what is going on and that they have their own views about both means and ends. Handled inappropriately, conflict can bring about futures that no-one wants; but handled effectively conflict can be resolved to mutual satisfaction.

Our framework for exploring relationships builds on the metaphor of drama. So those involved, for example in service delivery, are seen as characters in episodes where they confront challenges and dilemmas and from which they emerge through negotiation with others; just as in a stage play the plot is driven forward by the accommodations reached between characters.

Relationships as Drama

Within this framework, it is of fundamental importance to be thorough in populating the drama. So we trawl comprehensively to capture all those who have an interest in what is going on. In a Community Safety Partnership (CSP), for instance, this would typically include: elected members, officers and relevant committees of local authorities; police and probation services; educational institutions; voluntary sector organisations; chambers of commerce; trades unions; the local population plus any coherent sub-groupings (e.g. demographic, ethnic, residential, occupational); and so on. Note that these characters may be nested within one another or overlapping. The key is that each character (and a character may be a group) has its own distinctive position in a situation. That is, it has an expressed view as to how it would like to see matters develop.

At any time, there are many bones of contention between characters in a typical collaboration. Taking up the CSP illustration again, there are likely to be tensions between police and local authority, not least because of their differing cultures, leadership and management styles. There may be issues separating the partnership staff team and their policy board. There may be tensions between the public sector lead agencies and participating voluntary bodies and so on. Each of these confrontations can be considered as a dramatic episode to which various characters bring their own solutions (their positions) and in which they seek to influence others through threats and promises.

Let’s take just one example to illustrate how it could be framed and analysed as a drama. Community organisations (CO) are often reluctant to confront statutory bodies in partnership working. Yet in many cases they could exercise a powerful sanction by withdrawing participation. Since their involvement is often a key requirement of funding bodies, this threat should carry weight with public sector leads (PSL) and inhibit the latter, for instance, from unilaterally dictating the partnership agenda. If we were (realistically) to assume that the CO would most prefer to collaborate in a jointly shaped agenda and only reluctantly leave a partnership in which the PSL defines the agenda but that the PSL would find matters simplest if it could drive the partnership on its own lines, though it would (reluctantly) share this lead with the CO rather than face the ignominy of the latter withdrawing, then both parties face dilemmas. The PSL is under pressure to accept CO’s involvement which it would prefer to the collapse of the partnership and its threat to define the agenda will be suspected as a bluff by CO. The CO, on the other hand, is under pressure to allow the PSL to define the agenda which it would prefer to the collapse of the partnership and it cannot trust any agreement by PSL that it will implement collaboration on the agenda. Our theoryiv shows that there are just six generic dilemmas, any combination of which can be encountered in a collaboration, and there are a number of ‘escape routes’ from each of them. The key to successful collaboration is therefore about the management of these dilemmas for all parties involved.

A crucial lesson that emerges from drama analysis is that it is misguided to offer general prescriptions about the practice of collaboration. Every partnership is unique and must be treated in its own terms. Modelled as unique dramatic episodes in the way that I have described above, however, it is possible to suggest effective strategies for resolving conflicts and for achieving working collaborations.

Becoming Successful Collaborators

We have used the drama framework in a number of ways. Most obviously it has provided an analytical device for shaping and improving collaborative arrangements, either on behalf of one of the parties involved, or else on behalf of all of them (i.e. in mediation mode). But such analysis gives one-off support, whereas the complexity paradigm implies a need to develop agile strategies for coping with and adroitly exploiting the opportunities that come along on the tide of circumstance. For this reason we have concentrated on using the conceptual framework as a training and development tool.

Immersive drama (ID) is the name we have given to the role-play simulations that we have created to support collaborative practice, especially in and between public sector organisationsi. In an ID, role players each take on the mantle of a key character in a situation and, working from a briefing that sets out its position and predicament, they meet, exchange and negotiate with others to seek a resolution of the partnership challenge that we pose for them collectively. This free-flow process is quite distinct from a traditional role play as its focus is not on the ‘facts of the situation’ (which are still available and important) but upon the dilemmas of collaboration and their management. Our role players however inexperienced, find it easy to get into role and to ‘wear others’ moccasins’. The process stimulates debate and rational argument while supporting ownership of outcomes. IDs can be designed to incorporate specific dilemmas and thereby to enable people to develop their own responses to the challenges of relationships within novel or altered partnership configurations. Most significant the complexity of the whole system is not compromised and successful resolution depends upon the actions of all participants, who gain both affective as well as cognitive appreciation of anticipated change. Our experience is that such approaches help people to achieve what they want rather than continually being disappointed that their words do not move mountains.


i Immersive drama: testing health systems; Bryant, J.W. & Darwin, J. (2003) Omega: the international journal of management science, 31, pp.127-136.

ii Strategic management and organisational dynamics: the challenge of complexity; Stacey, R.D. (2003), London: Pearson Education.

iii Developing strategies for change; Darwin, J., Johnson, P. & McAuley, J. (2002), London: Pearson Education.

iv The six dilemmas of collaboration: inter-organisational relationships as drama; Bryant, J.W. (2003), Chichester: John Wiley.

James W Bryant ( J.W.Bryant@shu.ac.uk) is Professor of Operational Research and

Strategy Sciences and Co-Director of the Change Management Research Centre at

Sheffield Hallam University.