What does radical collaboration really mean?

Collective Change Lab
7 min readSep 21, 2022


by Katherine Milligan & Cynthia Rayner

United Nations General Assembly Week, also known as “UNGA”, is in full swing this year for the first time since the pandemic started. Beyond the formal addresses by Heads of State to UN delegates assembled in New York, it includes dozens of side events, dinners, and partnership launch announcements in service of the SDGs. And as we know, time is ticking: we’ve only got seven years and change to achieve the SDGs, also known as “Agenda 2030” due to the 2030 deadline. Pre-covid, we were already behind schedule — now we’re miles behind.

Most of the partnership announcements coming out of this week focus on what the partners hope to achieve: improve healthcare access, reduce food waste, and close the gender gap. We spend far less time thinking about how we will achieve these monumental goals in just seven years.

The answer is clear: we need to collaborate. No single organization can “solve” any of the SDGs on its own, nor make meaningful progress towards achieving them without the right relationships and partnerships in place. In fact, partnerships are so essential to achieving the goals that they’re baked into the framework: SDG17, Partnerships for the Goals, focuses on “strengthening the means of implementation and revitalizing the global partnership for sustainable development.”

We need to strengthen the means of implementation — that’s a mouthful. What if we said it in a simpler way? The ways we currently collaborate are simply not strong enough, not radical enough, to deliver on the ambitious targets we’ve set for humanity and the natural world that sustains us.

We’ve seen this firsthand by being involved in dozens of partnerships of all shapes and sizes– from large investment schemes funded by multilateral institutions benefiting vulnerable populations in multiple countries to place-based collective impact efforts engaging public and private sector partners around a common goal, such as improving student outcomes.

What do most of these partnerships have in common? Upon reflection, we would say that they are mostly transactional in nature — even with thoughtful, well-meaning people at the helm. All too quickly, those good intentions get gummed up in the “quid pro quo” nature by which most institutions and individuals approach partnerships: How will this help my organization’s brand or increase our funding? Can my boss get visibility and speaking opportunities out of this? Will our name come first on the press release?

We’ve seen that too, more times than we can count. Of course, it’s legitimate for organizations and individuals to look after certain interests to ensure viability and longevity. We all have to operate in the real world, not la la land. The problem with transactional approaches to partnering is that — more often than we would like to admit — they can devolve into self-promotional claims, squabbles over who gets credit, and tit-for-tat responses. Such dynamics can shift the calculations wherein one or more of the partners starts trying to extract maximum value while giving as little as possible in return. Surely we’re not the only ones who have experienced this!

We’ve also had the privilege of experiencing collaborations that not only manage to keep people in the room, but unleash positive energy and creative ideas such that the whole really does become more than the sum of their parts. Such collaborations move beyond quid pro quo approaches and mobilize — and maintain over time — the partners’ contributions of time, energy, resources, knowledge and more to dramatically improve delivery and outcomes. We need more of these kinds of collaborations to tackle the complexity of each and every one of the Sustainable Development Goals.

To achieve this level of collaboration, we need ways of working together that go beyond the transactional. We need radical collaboration. But what does that mean?

Radical collaboration has been introduced in recent years, primarily as a principle of design thinking. This version largely focuses on the what: if we bring together a group of diverse actors, we’ll get more diverse perspectives and hence a broader range of creation ideas. True enough, but, it doesn’t answer the question of how we stay in relationship with each other when we come together as diverse stakeholders.

At the Collective Change Lab, we’re a lab for collaboration. We focus on the how. We partner with others to experiment with practices that enable collectives to transform systems. In our research and practice, we’ve come to see radical collaboration as working together in deeper, more relational ways than transactional approaches. In radical collaborations, the process is the solution. It means being willing to engage in shared decision-making — in some cases, foregoing power and privilege for individual organizations in exchange for arrangements that benefit the whole — and doing so from a sense of abundance and a spirit of our shared humanity. It also requires humility and vulnerability, because conflict and failure are necessarily part of the process. Moving the needle on any of the complex problems comprising the SDG agenda is not a neat, tidy, straight line.

What does radical collaboration mean in the real world? Here are some baby steps we can take during UNGA week and adopt throughout the year, to help us build the muscles to collaborate in more transformative ways.

  • Start with rituals. Radical collaboration requires intent; it does not happen by accident. Creating rituals is a way of expressing that intent by carving out special time and space to be in relationship with your partners and the work. Try starting or ending your collaboration meetings with practices unique to your group: a minute of silent contemplation, a meaningful check-in question, reading a poem or quote, or simply sharing what has brought you to the group. The goal is to support participants in being fully present to the work and to each other.
  • Be heart-centric. Lead with the heart and the head. “Love is not seen as professional,” as the head of a private foundation lamented to us. We challenge this. To love in the benevolent sense is to put our concerns for others on equal or greater par as concerns for ourselves. Share what’s in your heart with others. Open your heart to receive others’ gifts and offer grace for their shortcomings. If we are not doing this work for our love of humanity and the world, then why are we in this game?
  • Set your intention to share power, especially if you are currently in a role with positional power. This means identifying who is not in the room and making space for voices to be equally heard, as well as putting your money where your mouth is: sharing resources, removing barriers to entry, and not fighting over logos and line items when they are getting in the way of true change.
  • Invest in the relatedness of everyone involved. This means slowing down, which is a hard message to deliver when problems feel so urgent. But rushing on the front end will cost you later. A respected systems change leader who launched a multi-stakeholder partnership to much fanfare told us that he would go back and structure the initial convening differently if he could. With a tight budget and limited time, the group jumped straight into “doing” mode, setting the strategy, agreeing on targets, and assigning milestones, without taking the time to connect on a human level and build deeper relationships. Two years in, the effort is stalling because, in part, there is not sufficient relatedness amongst the partners to sustain the effort. Calls and emails go unanswered, and the energy is petering out.
  • Recognize that each of us is part of the problem as well as the solution. We perpetuate systems even as we dismantle them. We have to be willing to explore our own biases and mental models, which may make us dismiss others’ ideas or preclude us from valuing certain perspectives. Our willingness to work on ourselves even as we devote our energy to social and environmental change encourages us to approach the work with greater openness, flexibility, and humility. These individual changes can create a tidal wave of transformation.

Will these baby steps catalyze radical collaboration? Not overnight they won’t. But try sticking with them and keep experimenting with radical ways of supporting the broader set of partners you are working with to step out of their default transactional mode. Achieving the SDGs in seven years requires nothing less of us than true transformation.

This article was originally published on Collective Change Lab’s blog