Practices and Patterns of Strong Interdisciplinary Collaboration

What makes for successful interdisciplinary collaboration? While there are many ways to answer this question, there are also common patterns that increase the likelihood that a partnership will not only achieve its stated goals, but also strengthen relationships among those involved and even lead to unanticipated positive outcomes in the future. Many of us experience the qualities of strong interdisciplinary work, even if we’re unaware of it. A well-functioning sports team, in which each member plays a different position, but works towards a common goal is one example. Planning a trip with friends might be another case in which each person has a unique role and set of skills that they bring towards a shared and collaboratively developed outcome. While both of these are familiar and useful examples, the on-the-ground work of building partnerships across disciplines, sectors and communities is much more complex and challenging.

The patterns described below are not intended to be a complete list that will guarantee successful collaborations. However, they are offered with the assumption that when these ways of working together are put into action, there is a greater likelihood that the kind of trust and relationships necessary for strong collaboration will be created. Participants in the partnership will understand that they are gathering together to do something they can’t do on their own. They will feel valued both for their expertise (professional, experiential or both) and also as a person. They will have a way to shape the purpose of and goals of the partnership, will feel invested in this purpose and will have clear avenues to contribute towards achieving it. While these kinds of outcomes are ideal, they are unlikely to arise all at once. Even then, partnerships can be built as these ways of working are also a work in progress:


This practice can be more challenging than it seems when building a partnership or collaboration. Yet, it is key for gathering the group in a way that creates cohesion and clarity, enabling participants to identify if and how their participation is needed. Questions such as “What can we do together that we can’t do alone?” or “What would be missing / would not happen / would be left unaddressed if we did not convene this partnership?” can help to identify clear purpose. If you are the convenor of the partnership, it is also important to bring the purpose to the group itself for reflection and refinement, as well as regular review to ensure it remains relevant.


“One of the biggest reasons cross-sector collaboration is difficult is because sectors have different logics, values, priorities, and comfort zones, in short, different cultures,” writes Mille Bojer (n.d.). As a result, one of the most important practices for participants in or convenors of interdisciplinary partnership is to become aware of these differences, so they can be shared openly, reducing the kinds of conflict, confusion and competition that can arise. Bojer (n.d.) adds that, “Becoming self-aware,” of the culture we inhabit and how it is similar and different to that of our partners “is one of the key attributes of strong cross-sector collaboration.”

Appreciation for Difference

In close connection to self-awareness of difference(s) is an appreciation for them. This practice is a way of getting curious about the benefit that another worldview or set of priorities brings to the process or the work of the partnership. Bojer (n.d.) calls this “understanding complementarities,” and it comes from a holistic view, in which all parts of a system have a contribution to make. It might not always be evident immediately, and may feel as if it slows things down, but recognizing and harnessing the benefit of difference is the very reason that interdisciplinary work is needed. If only one way of addressing a challenge was needed, or if only one group was impacted by a potential initiative, then there would be no need for the collaboration in the first place. Appreciation for difference is more than an acknowledgement, it is a willingness to be changed by that difference so that something new can be created.


Does everyone in the partnership have access to the same information and background knowledge? If not, what can be done to address this imbalance? Are conversations happening in the background or in side channels that undermine the work of the group? If so, what is preventing them from occurring out in the open? What motivations, concerns, pressures and needs does each member experience and how can these be made visible and addressed?

Clarity (of Roles, Commitments, Expectations)

When there are multiple and new ways of working at play in one partnership, it can be challenging to know how each part fits together, what is reasonable to expect and how or if participants can commit to one another. Once again, this clarity may not exist in the first meeting, but it is important to move in this direction, reflecting regularly to ensure that there is enough clarity about roles, commitments and expectations to continue to move forward. And, if that clarity is lacking, to identify what can be done to bring it into focus.


This practice is one that might seem to conflict with the emphasis on clarity. However, it speaks to the reality that, while setting a clear direction and purpose for a partnership is critical, it is also true that new information, new dynamics and other unexpected outcomes are likely to emerge when working in this way. As a result, it can be important to recognize when a shift (in purpose or roles or expectations) is needed so that the way(s) of working are a better fit for the function of partnership. Regular check-ins on alignment around process, clarity, contribution, and purpose can all help signal when an adaptation or adjustment are needed in order to get back on track.

 A Note on Trust

While trust is a critical attribute of effective partnerships and collaborations, it is not listed as a practice, but as an outcome of good practice and process. It is something that is nurtured and supported over time in a partnership. While it plays a big role in the kinds of outcomes and products that emerge from collaboration, trust cannot be rushed or mandated. It is important to include in reflection on a partnership to consider how it can be encouraged and supported.


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