by Tim Leisman

The shared values of Coca-Cola and the World Wildlife Fund might not be immediately apparent. But after reviewing a collaborative partnership between the 2 organizations, CCL Senior Enterprise Associate Chuck Palus recounts that the companies found one thing they had in common: a desire to protect clean water.

Look closer and it makes perfect sense: water is the main ingredient in all of Coca-Cola’s products, while access to clean water is a key priority for the World Wildlife Fund. The bigger challenge was how these organizations — especially a for-profit and not-for-profit — could work together towards common goals and accomplish what we call the shared tasks of leadership: Direction, Alignment, and Commitment (DAC). Here’s what that means:

  • Direction is agreement on what the collective is trying to achieve together.
  • Alignment occurs through effective coordination and integration of the different aspects of the work so that everything fits together in service of the shared direction.
  • Commitment takes people who make the success of the collective (not just their individual success) a personal priority.[1]

It’s easy to say that different organizations can collaborate to achieve DAC, but if it’s so easy in practice, the world would have solved challenges such as access to clean water by now.

Dr. John Bryson, an expert in collaborative governance and the McKnight Presidential Professor of Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, notes that, “Collaboration is not an easy answer to hard problems; it’s a hard answer to hard problems and there’s no getting around it.”

In a recent paper with colleagues Dr. Fran Ackerman and Dr. Colin Eden in Public Administration Review, he used CCL’s model of Direction-Alignment-Commitment — the shared tasks of leadership — to help explain the results of their study on public-private partnerships (PPPs).[2]

One remarkable example of this in practice involves a condominium developer, a city with a struggling school district, and residents. The city couldn’t fund the necessary repairs to the school district due to budget shortfalls, and the condominium developer was ready to help, so long as it could make a profit from developing condos in the area.

So what was the problem?

The community groups tied to the school including the alumni association and nearby neighborhood group promised to resist the redevelopment at every step of the way. But by bringing these partners together at public forums and open meetings, city leaders built trust with citizens and turned their concerns into stipulations within the contractual agreement. In turn, this reduced risk for the developer by redirecting the community groups’ passion from resistance to negotiation, and ensured long-term public accountability through contractual working relationships.[3]

The school district, developer, and city in this case experienced “collaborative advantage.”

Dr. Bryson and his colleagues define collaborative advantage as the phenomenon when groups achieve more by working together than they could independently. This happens when groups take the time to conduct shared dialogue to set direction, coordinate work processes to establish alignment, and commit to the extra time, effort, and risk required for authentic and transparent relationships. During this process, groups see how they can each achieve the goals necessary for their success while also creating value for their partners and a better world for the public.

The point here isn’t necessarily to convince you that your organization needs more collaboration; indeed, collaboration isn’t always the best style of management. In the school district example above, the shared dialogue required for collaboration added extra time to the project and forced parties to be vulnerable, conditions only possible where trust exists and time is available. In situations where rapid response is needed, such as government aid delivery after a crisis, quick decision-making ability plays an important role in enabling quick mobilization that governance through collaboration struggles to match.

Yet the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous challenges facing us in the 21st Century can only be solved through collaboration.

The case of Coca-Cola and the World Wildlife Fund uniting to work for clean water provides a good example. These entities recognized their mutual concern over water — an important resource for both — and committed to coming to the table even when direction couldn’t be set and alignment was unclear.

This happened because leaders recognized that in our interdependent world, the challenge of protecting clean water couldn’t be solved independently. Through facilitated sessions, both organizations realized that they not only share an interest in clean water and sustainability, but could also work in ways that benefited each other.[4]

Technological advances have made collaboration easier than ever before, since organizations can now engage in shared dialogue from thousands of miles apart.

CCL works to help leaders understand the value of collaboration and we guide the way to implement collaborative practices using practical tools like Collaboration Explorer. This tool helps leaders explore the culture of their teams and larger organizations and build the foundation for ongoing, meaningful dialogue. Try it out for yourself or contact the CCL Labs team for more details.


Author Tim Leisman is a Program Coordinator at CCL currently working to earn his Master’s in Public Affairs at UNCG. He graduated with a BA from Guilford College and has worked at several nonprofits around Greensboro, NC, that connect with his passion for creating positive social change. At work, he supports CCL’s Societal Advancement initiatives and pursues his curiosity for innovative ways to solve social challenges.



[1] McCauley, Cynthia (2014). “Making leadership happen.” CCL White Paper.

[2] Bryson, John M., Ackermann, Fran, and Eden, Colin (2016). “Discovering collaborative advantage: The contributions of goal categories and visual strategy mapping.” Public Administration Review, 76, 6, 912-925.

[3] Roberts, David J. and Siemiatycki, Matt (2015) “Fostering meaningful partnerships in public–private partnerships: innovations in partnership design and process management to create value.” Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 33, p. 780 – 793.

[4] Asif, Vered and Palus, Charles J. (2015). “Leadership strategies for societal impact.” CCL White Paper.

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