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Interorganizational Collaboration

June 13, 2018

Strategies for Collaborating to Solve Wicked Problems

Written by Deb J. Ford, PhD

Many of the world’s most pressing problems are those called wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex problems that have no one right answer.

People sitting at a table together in a coffee shop

Consider problems stemming from economic development, environmental issues, population health, and others (Rittel & Webber, 1973). No single person or organization can provide the expertise, ideas, time, money or people needed to solve such complex problems. Many perspectives are needed to generate potential solutions. So, we increasingly ask representatives of organizations to work together to generate solutions.

Efforts to work together to generate solutions are called interorganizational collaborations. In theory, these may sound like great opportunities for people to get together to create solutions for difficult, often intractable problems. These collaborations should be highly inclusive processes where everyone provides an equal contribution to the goal—and sometimes they are.

Other times they do not work as well as we hope. A core tension hides behind the function of these interorganizational collaborations: members are participating in the collaboration while also representing their organizations (Keyton, Ford, & Smith, 2008; Lewis, Isbell, & Koschman, 2010).

How much can—or should—your organization contribute to design a solution for a problem? How much should you keep as proprietary information for your company? That is a difficult tightrope to navigate, in addition to seeking potential solutions.

There are simple strategies that can enhance the odds that the collaboration will be successful over time, such as:

  • Introduce all members at every meeting. This helps you get back on the same page. Take time to introduce any new members and review the mission (why you are there).
  • Develop a communication structure for how you will work together.
  • Develop a mission and joint goals.
  • Set meeting dates.
  • Decide how you will connect outside of the meeting: email, social media, etc.
  • Meet often, and face-to-face if possible. Challenging topics make for difficult conversations. Face-to-face meetings, or least online video meetings, enhance the chances of effective communication.
  • Make every effort to send the same representatives to every meeting. Otherwise, you will be starting over with a new group at every meeting.
  • Work to balance the structure of the meeting with open dialogue.

Recognize that these are not easy relationships. Using the above strategies will help your members focus on the goal: creating solutions to wicked problems.

Like interorganizational collaborations, our Interdisciplinary EdD in Leadership program combines the viewpoints, experiences, and contributions of a variety of parties. Learn more about this doctoral program and how you can begin your journey toward enhancing your leadership skills by visiting the EdD program page.

Debra Ford

Debra J. Ford, PhD

Associate Professor, EdD
Graduate School


Keyton, J., Ford, D.J., & Smith, F. E. (2008). A mesolevel communicative model of collaboration. Communication Theory, 18, 376-406.

Lewis, L., Isbell, M., & Koschmann, M. (2010). Collaborative tensions: Practitioners’ experiences of interorganizational relationships. Communication Monographs, 77, 460-479.

Rittel, J. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169.