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Set clear expectations for collaboration

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Lydian Altman, Margaret Henderson and Gordon Whitaker

No matter what the purpose or how many participants are involved in a cooperative effort, the relationship works more smoothly when all parties share clear expectations for what each will do.

Being clear on what you expect before it happens helps avoid conflict arising from differing expectations.

The parties in a partnership need to be clear on:

  • What each can expect of the others.
  • Who can take initiative for the partnership.
  • How the partners will communicate with each other.
  • How changes in their relationship will be decided.

Thus, expectations need to cover how the partners will interact with each other, as well as what they will agree to do in furthering their shared mission.

Expectations about the process of working together are as important as expectations about the work being done.

Setting expectations can be unilateral or mutual.

One party may set forth expectations for all those in the partnership.  Or the parties can consider options and work together to create expectations for how they will work together.

Mutually setting expectations helps each party buy in to the partnership.

Here are some questions to ask in mutually developing expectations:

  • What is the overall purpose of this relationship?

Participants need to understand the fundamental intention to be sure that they do, in fact, want to join the effort.

  • What specifically do you hope to accomplish by having this relationship?

Consider the potential benefits for both members of the group and any stakeholders outside the group. These might include tangible products or services, as well as more intangible outcomes, such as improved communication or participation within processes.

  • Who can or should participate regularly in this group’s meetings?

Are there others who can or should periodically participate in meetings or provide feedback to guide the actions of this group? Will leadership be assigned or rotated?  Who can bring issues to the group’s attention through either the formal agenda or informal discussion?

  • Who is expected to carry out which actions, and for whom?

Be specific about responsibilities for the basics, such as making the logistical arrangements for convening meetings, financial management, communicating with group members or external stakeholders, or implementing new or revised service or support activities

  • Who can invoke or alter these expectations? Under what circumstances?

We make plans, and then life happens.  How much autonomy do group members have in adjusting the game plan?

  • How will decisions be made within the group?

All decisions matter, whether they are about the group, the finances, the service population, the desired outcomes, or the group’s joint or coordinated service or support activities

  • How will resources be shared or allocated?

All potential partners need this information to make an appropriate decision about their participation.

  • How will the group report on its activities, responsibilities, or progress?

This includes details such as the content and format of information and the responsibility for collecting or preparing the information.  Also, who might receive or use the information, inside or outside the group?

  • How will the group evaluate its success?

Often this step is defined by the funders but is otherwise overlooked in our societal rush to meet the next deadline or put out the next fire.

Successful response to our current economic stress is going to require innovation in how we work together for our communities.

As we create new and different working relationships, we should invest time in clarifying our expectations proactively.


Lydian Altman and Margaret Henderson are associate directors of the public intersection project, and Gordon Whitaker is a professor of public administration and government, all at the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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