Pursuing Collaborative Advantage to Solve Wicked Problems in Public Health

Collaboration is essential to address wicked problems in public health. Presented here are some useful tips to help plan successful partnerships.

As public health professionals, we tackle some of the most difficult and complex challenges facing society. Even the tamest of public health issues cross organizational and disciplinary boundaries. But wicked problems like health inequity, growing chronic disease epidemics, ongoing and foreseeable pandemics, and an inadequate public health infrastructure will inevitably require a cross pollination of ideas and resources from different stakeholders. However, if you are like me, you’ve probably found yourself involved in (or worse, leading) collaborations that seem to be going nowhere. The purpose of the Pursuing Collaborative Advantage blog series is to create a space to think about how to improve collaboration and to foster creativity and innovation by sharing different perspectives about public health issues. This first post provides a primer on the concept of collaborative advantage and a worksheet to help plan more strategic partnerships.

Collaborative Advantage: A Framework for Successful Collaboration

I came across the concept of collaborative advantage when writing my dissertation on collaboration between local health departments and schools and programs of public health. The concept of collaborative advantage resonated with me because it harkened towards a very positive and transformative form of collaboration. Collaborative advantage refers to the ability of partners to produce results that are remarkably better than what any single organization could accomplish individually. It recognizes that value is created best through a constellation of organizations and stakeholders working together towards a common purpose. The concept of collaborative advantage has been researched extensively. For this blog, I have broken the concept down into three of the most important outcomes of collaboration (in yellow) and three of the most important processes of collaboration (in light blue).

Outcomes of Collaboration: Creativity, Innovation, and Transformation

Good collaboration is valuable for its ability to improve creativity, realize innovation, and foster transformative change. When planning for collaboration, it is important to begin by plotting out what these benefits might be. This will help ensure that partners buy-in and put in the necessary work needed to make collaboration successful. The benefits of collaboration are a driver of partnership function and sustainability. Collaboration can improve creativity by bringing together new knowledge, data, and ideas. Here, creativity is a precursor for innovation and transformation. Innovation is the ability for partners to take new action or move away from the status quo. Partners create innovation by sharing resources and recombining how they are used to address a problem. Collaboration that brings together different sectors, disciplines, and the communities impacted by wicked public health challenges can help forge new ideas and lead to new ways of working. At its best, collaboration is a form of transformation and can help organizations reframe their identity and expand their capabilities.

Processes that Support Collaboration: Aligning Purpose, Sharing Resources, and Building Trust

Partnerships typically cannot be managed through authority. Therefore, collaboration requires strategic processes to help bring partners together and to create the conditions that support buy-in, sustainability, sharing, and openness to change. Coming to an aligned purpose of the partnership is a first step in creating these conditions. Partners should work to identify goals that cannot be accomplished without working together that support a mutual need. Because of this, collaboration requires a real sense of how your organization’s priorities, strengths, and needs overlap with your partners’. Aligning on the purpose of the partnership will help set up collaboration for success. Partners also need to understand what their strengths and resources are. Innovation is fostered by bringing together complimentary assets to create new ways of working. Both an understanding of what these strengths are and processes to bring them together are needed to support tangible innovation. Finally, trust is the fuel of collaboration. Processes should be put into place to build trust. In this context, trust is both faith that partners will not take advantage of your organization, and faith that your partners are competent enough to help you achieve your goals. Aligning the purpose of the partnership is one step towards building trust. However, this should be revisited regularly to make sure that there is reciprocity between partners and that the organizations are not feeling like they are being taken advantage of. Planning for quick wins is another strategy to build trust. Quick wins are relatively modest achievements that show partners they are both capable of working together successfully. Quick wins help build confidence in the partnership by showing they can work together. Over time, quick wins improve risk tolerance and create the conditions for more transformative change. Finally, processes for dialogue are needed to promote reflection and transformation.

Making Collaboration Work

Collaboration is essential to address wicked problems in public health. Presented here are some useful tips to help plan successful partnerships. By aligning on the purpose of collaboration, sharing resources, and building trust, partnerships can be developed that improve creativity, realize innovation, and promote transformational change. Partnerships are critical for public health. Using the principles described here can help improve how you plan for your partnerships. Please remember this blog post and use the collaboration planning worksheet for your next partnership.

Related Research

  1. (1996). Creating collaborative advantage. SAGE.
  2. Huxham, & Vangen, S. (2005). Managing to collaborate: the theory and practice of collaborative advantage. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203010167
  3. Kovach, Kevin A. DrPH, MSc; Welter, Christina R. DrPH, MPH; Seweryn, Steven M. EdD, MPH; Torres, Griselle DrPH, MPH, MSW Perceived Benefits of Collaboration Between Local Health Departments and Schools and Programs of Public Health: A Mixed-Methods Study, Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: March/April 2019 – Volume 25 – Issue 2 – p 147-155 doi: 10.1097/PHH.0000000000000823
  4. Wilson, Kristin D. PhD, MHA; Mohr, Lisa Buettner PhD, MPH, CHES; Beatty, Kate E. PhD, MPH; Ciecior, Amanda BS Describing the Continuum of Collaboration Among Local Health Departments With Hospitals Around the Community Health Assessments, Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: November/December 2014 – Volume 20 – Issue 6 – p 617-625 doi: 10.1097/PHH.0000000000000030

Download the Worksheet: Pursing Collaborative Advantage Planning Worksheet

Author Profile

Kevin A. Kovach
Dr. Kevin A. Kovach is an epidemiologist and public health professional. He is the Senior Manager of the American Academy of Family Physicians’ Department of Population and Community Health. Prior to this, he worked in local and state public health for almost 15 years. Dr. Kovach’s work focuses on health equity, social determinants of health, interdisciplinary collaboration, mixed-methods research, implementation science, and capacity building.