“The question of how to collaborate across boundaries admits no easy, universal answer. There are, however, striking similarities between the types of challenges that different collaborations face. From 2018 to 2020, the authors of this article—researchers from the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School, working on the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative—worked with 30 cross-boundary collaborations from cities in the United States, Canada, Iceland, and the United Kingdom. Each year, we convened 10 cross-boundary teams in New York City and facilitated sessions to help them reflect on their goals, theories of change, and capacity for collaboration. Afterward, we monitored their progress and examined their barriers and breakthroughs. Using interviews, surveys, group exercises, and direct observation, we gained a deeper understanding of what helps and hinders collaboration.
One takeaway became abundantly clear: Building collaborative capacity requires repeated practice, constant care, and iterative evaluation of progress and goals. Like fitness, it requires dedicated time to warm up and cool down, and equipment that helps stretch the right muscle groups. In this article, we present a process and a set of tools to train the ‘collaboration muscle,’ using the team from a collaboration in Calgary, Canada with whom we worked in our case study. This process involves a diagnostic exercise and a ranking exercise that allow leaders collaborating across boundaries to understand both the enablers of and the barriers to their success.”