COMM-ORG Papers 2005



A Six-Step Development Framework to Build Successful Alliances, Coalitions
and Partnerships

Joan M. Roberts MA


A Trans-Organizational (TS) System is:
     The Kinds of Work These Organizations do
     Phase 1-Determining the need for a TS and exploring the problem set
     Phase 2- Motivation to collaborate
     Phase 3- Member identification and selection
     Phase 4- Collaborative planning
     Phase 5 - Building an organization
     Phase 6 – Evaluation
About the Author


The federal organizing model is now being used at the organizational level in government, non-profit and business sectors. The development of this organizational form is a response to rapid change and environmental turbulence.  I build on Thomas Cummings' 1980’s trans-organizational systems (ts) model to create a 6 step TS effectiveness model.


Prior to becoming a consultant in the late 90’s, I worked in many different capacities with numerous large groups. These groups usually formed to deal with a complex social problem ranging from the lack of affordable housing to preventive disease strategies and local economic development.  By the mid 90’s, I was keenly aware of the importance and advantages of using a neutral facilitator to help a group develop a common vision.  In group after group I made sure facilitators and OD consultants were hired to lead the visioning process.  Up to two days might be devoted to such work.  The end result was printed up in fancy vision brochures. But many processes did not live up the promise, and I pulled out my hair in frustration.  What is supposed to happen after the vision is complete? Who makes it all happen? How? What do you need in terms of structure to make the vision happen? What the consultants neglected to educate their clients about, was that there is a lot more to think about in creating a mechanism for large scale change to happen than just the vision!

To stop my hair pulling habit, I went back to school to do a Masters Degree in Organization Development.  I found some answers there, and learned many large system intervention techniques, but still the hair pulling continued.   There was so much emphasis on the vision or a plan.  When I asked what happens next, I was told by esteemed leaders in the field that the folks know what to do next. “Lets not undermine their confidence trying to tell them what to do”, many said. Do you remember the term “cop out”? I felt the advice I got was just that –a cop out. After I finished school, I decided to assemble what I learned with what I did in the field. I asked myself, what did it really take to make large systems change happen?   I gave myself free rein to use whatever I learned in my earlier studies and my experience in politics and grass roots organizations. I did further research on the concept of trans-organizational systems and multi-domain theory. I finally became confident enough to state that I was not working with large groups but trans-organizational systems (TS) -- the kind of multi-organizational systems everyone was calling alliances, coalitions and partnerships. I developed the material into a successful workshop and a book.

A Trans-organzational System (TS) is:

TSs are functional social systems existing between single organizations and societal systems. They are able to make decisions and perform tasks on behalf of their member organizations, although members maintain their separate organizational identities and goals. TS members remain accountable to their organizations of origin.

The kinds of work these organizations do:

Organizations manage knowledge to achieve desired results - knowledge being a critical mass of information looked at through the lens of experience and critical thinking, which enables us to predict and control something. 

Organizations are comprised of knowledge specialists and generalists who manage the interface between knowledge specialties. Bits of knowledge by themselves are sterile. They become productive only if welded together into a single unified body of knowledge. To make this transformation of knowledge possible is the task for the organization, the reason for its existence, or its function.  In other words, the work of the organization is to add value to incoming information gleaned from its workers, its customers/clients and its environment, and then transform this into the output of a service or product.  If there is not a value added process or transformation, then there is no work and no authentic organization.  In the case of a family the transformation of knowledge results in meeting the needs of family members, emotionally as well as financially.

 A trans-organizational system manages knowledge too. It must be managed in a similar fashion to any organization comprised of specialists.  But with TSs, the member organizations hold the specialized knowledge and participate in the process as the voices of the knowledge specialists. The specialist knowledge is not necessarily the knowledge of an academic discipline but can also be the voice of lived experience by a particular constituency. It depends on the problem set that is motivating the formation of a TS.

The TS must bridge those specialist identities and accountabilities of member organizations in order to produce new knowledge that can purposefully adapt to the turbulent environment.

There is still an important place for large system methodologies but they should be used at a particular phase in group development. What follows is a 6 phase framework for TS development adapted from Thomas Cumming’s 4 step model developed in 1984.

A Framework to Develop a Trans-Organizational System (TS)

Phase 1

Problem /Problem set identification

What intractable problems are surfacing in our environment that we cannot resolve by ourselves?

Phase 2

Motivation to Act

Someone alone and then with a small group decides to act in concert with others because of the perceived benefits of collaborative action

Phase 3

Member Identification and Selection

Who cares about the problem and is willing to join our process?

Phase 4

Collaborative Planning

Should a TS be created and if so what is its vision and action strategies?

Phase 5

Building an Organization

 Operationalizing the vision and action into

 structure, leadership, communication, polices and procedures

Phase 6


How is the TS performing re: performance outcomes, quality of interaction, member satisfaction?


Phase 1-Determining the need for a TS and exploring the problem set: What intractable problems are surfacing in our environment that we cannot resolve by ourselves?

Russell Ackoff, one of the originators of systems thinking, calls the intractable problem sets we face in our chaotic environment “Meta Problems and Messes” (Ackoff and Emery, 1972). These are the intractable problems that as a society we can’t address very easily.

Meta Problem: The set of all problems that make up a single problem-- the one you have to solve.

Messes: What they are not is merely problems. Problems have solutions. Messes do not have straightforward solutions.

Social messes:

  • are more than complicated and complex. They are ambiguous.
  • contain considerable uncertainty – even as to what the conditions are, let alone what the appropriate actions might be.
  • are bounded by great constraints and are tightly interconnected, economically, socially, politically, technologically.
  • are seen differently from different points of view, and quite different worldviews.
  • contain many value conflicts.
  • are often a-logical or illogical.

Messes are the meta problems of drugs and gangs, poverty, obesity, ethnic conflict and international crime syndicates; messes have strong links to civil wars, international small arms trade, globalization and the rapid advance of technology.

All the TS members eventually need to have the same mental model of the mess. This is can be one of the objectives of using a large system methodology later on in the development process.

Questions that help distinguish a mess from a simple problem

1.   Who are the players?

2.   Who has responsibility or ownership of the problem?

3.   What are the individual problems?

4.   What are current initiatives to address the problems?

5.   What are the causes of the individual problems?

6.   What are the constraints or barriers to building solutions?

7.   What might be the underlying systemic issues?

8.   What are the values and motivations of the system participants?

A TS may be required when there is a mess to address.  If several stakeholders have a vested interest in the meta problem or mess (I use the terms interchangeably) and are willing to work together developing solutions, they can move forward confidently to create a TS. A TS is even more appropriate if there is a history of incremental or sporadic efforts to deal with the problem set that have not produced satisfactory solutions to date and the problem seems to be unsolvable or exasperatingly persistent.

Environmental scanning tools can be as simple as a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) exercise, to activating a newsbot on the internet to monitor internet traffic around a trend or topic involved in the meta problem. In politcalese, it is called opening a file.

In our current environment, rapid decision-making is necessary to adapt to rapid change. But the issues to be decided are often extremely complex. To enhance complex decision-making, to help us deal with uncertainties and new responses by others, we need multiple inputs. The intelligence or knowledge found in single organizations is often inadequate.

Independent organizations are motivated to seek additional expertise and capacity beyond what they themselves can produce. The intelligence gathering and sharing of many organizations can provide the additional knowledge needed to produce a more effective response to a problem set such as homelessness or poverty. The shared capacity and resources of housing, counseling and education providers can provide a more effective program to address poverty, for example, than any one agency or type of intervention operating alone. 

Once you know you are dealing with a mess, assessing whether a TS is the appropriate tool, and its likelihood of success, is the next step.

Simple problems are better addressed with an in-house program or project and do not require a TS. Why build a mansion when a cabin will do?

Phase 2- Motivation to collaborate: We decide to act in concert with others because of the perceived benefits of collaborative action.

Whoever is the initiator of the process, does so because he/she is motivated to act. What are those motivators? Often the key motivator is that there is a great likelihood of success in moving ahead and enrolling others into the process.

The likelihood of success can be determined through a brief analysis.  Here are some questions you can ask to determine the likelihood of building a successful TS.

A simple feasibility assessment tool for the TS task/ problem focus:

  • Are other individuals and organizations likely to be concerned about this problem too?
  • Would they be willing to commit time and resources towards the work involved on a long term basis? What assets and capabilities might be exchanged in a partnership? What might our organization provide and expect to receive?
  • Are there opportunities for solutions to be found and or developed?  For instance, are there sources of funding we could access?
  • What kind of work would the group undertake(In the non-profit sector, think beyond broad descriptors like revitalization and community development)?  Is it more likely to be advocacy, education and awareness, social marketing or programming? In the private sector, is the solution likely to be a marketing or a supplier focused TS?
  • What kind of commitment would my core group and I need to make to get a TS up and running?
  • How would this  process help our organization to:
  • Serve our clients/customers?
  • Reach our strategic goals?
  • Achieve desired results?
  • What risks might this alliance involve? What risks to each other's reputation? What financial risks?
  • What other benefits might this partnership bring, to my organization, to the community, to my industry?

Given this preliminary assessment, is there a strong potential for a partnership that will further our organization’s mission and serve our constituency better?

If the assessment does not seem to bear out a substantive case for partnership then ask what is in your span of power to undertake to better conditions for a future partnership or to undertake a project in house to explore the problem? 

Phase 3- Member identification and selection: Who cares about the problem and is willing to join our process?

3 Ways of Incorporating Knowledge Resources into a Trans-organizational System (TS)

     1.  Expanding Network Model

In this membership selection process you begin with a small core group of organizations.  As your learning about the problem and its environment increases, you expand and recruit organizations and resources into the process. These resources can be specific experts and leaders in problem relevant fields who can be integrated into the TS or invited to participate on a time limited basis when appropriate.

     2. Stakeholder Analysis Model

In this process you identify your TS participants at the beginning of TS formation. Participant selection criteria can use of any of these approaches:

  • Positional approach-invite key staff in organizations that are connected to the problem and have a stake in the problem
  • Reputation approach-the community is asked to suggest persons (interview or formal electoral process)
  • Social participation approach-stakeholders are identified with respect to their previous and current participation in efforts to solve the problem
  • Opinion leadership method -identifies stakeholders on the basis of their leverage or influence in relation to the TS task
  • Demographic method -participants are selected on the basis of demographic characteristics that can affect the problem
  • Referent group (a core group of organizations) maps out the wider environment and identifies stakeholders

     3. Self Selection

This is the most common model.  An Issue Champion calls a meeting of concerned persons and organizations. Whoever shows up and volunteers for a task becomes the new organization.

Phase 4- Collaborative planning: Should a TS be created? If so, what are its vision and action strategies?

Until members agree to a common vision, TSs are rudderless and directionless. The common vision acts like a route outlined on a road map, informing all who participate where the process will try to go. In this visioning and strategic planning phase you will develop the following:

  • Member commitment
  • Sense of mission
  • Shared values with which to work together
  • Collective vision
  • Goals that can be translated into action and be measured.

This is the major trust-building and direction-setting phase in building a TS. It is wise to use a neutral person (without a vested interest in the outcomes) to facilitate the development of the common vision.

How are older methods being adapted for the large group framework?

Organization development consultants use large system interventions to get a whole system learning and making decisions at the same time. The objective is to have all the expertise and information pertaining to the system and its focus in the same room, able to make decisions in real time by exposing all the parts of an organizational system to the big picture. This enables people to make better decisions, incorporating not only their area of expertise, but also an understanding of how all the parts influence the whole.

This chart details some of the most popular in use today. 

Name of Process Tool


Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative inquiry is currently popular. At its core is a process of reframing issues and problems positively when developing vision  and strategic plans.

AI process includes:

1. Definition: Frame the problem positively

2. Discovery: identify what works, connect to positive moments

3. Dream: Create shared images of a preferred future

4. Design: Innovate and improvise ways to create that future

5. Deliver: Implement the preferred future

Search Conference

This is the most theoretically grounded intervention. SC is a two-and-a-half-day strategic or policy planning tool, involving environmental scanning, system scanning and strategy development  in a democratic structure. It is the best tool to adapt to a turbulent environment and deals openly with conflict with a rationalization of conflict process.

Future Search

This is a popularized quasi–search conference methodology and search tool that was well-known and popular a few years ago. The traditional Search Conference is modified with mind mapping and value identification exercises.

Institute of Cultural Affairs

This world wide organization provides facilitation training in their Technology of Participation.

Their strategic planning process is usually a 3 part process involving a collective vision, identification of obstacles to that vision, and a strategy to deal with obstacles. Through the International Association of Facilitators, ICA has a worldwide organizational structure to support and promote the methodology.

Open Space

This is the most popular large system intervention at present. A Open Space leader sets ground rules for free form discussions to take place.  Topics are identified by participants and gatherings form around posted topics in the village marketplace. These gatherings move into discussion space and participants self –organize around exploring the topic. Many great ideas can be generated but the methodology needs sufficient time and a trained facilitator to move the groups into idea selection and prioritization.

It is also good at bringing covert conflict into the open and allowing participants to work it out.

Preferred Futuring

This is an easy process for facilitators to learn and apply. Uses similar exercises to Search and Future Search including value identification and historical scans Not a lot of theoretical understanding required on the facilitator’s part. It is flexible and adaptable to fit in available time frames. It brings the values of participants to the surface and encourages effective communication and trust building.

Phase 5 - Building an organization: How do we organize the vision and action into structure, leadership, communication, policies, and procedures?

Many TSs are stymied by this phase, in which members need to decide how to implement the vision and strategy developed in Phase 4 to address the problem. TSs are often built without members ever considering what they need to do to survive and carry out the agreed-to strategy. Instead of addressing that question and determining how much structure is needed to ensure continuity and survival, members’ energy is invested into implementing the strategy until conflict or lack of participation grabs everyone’s attention or simply kills off the process. The group’s architecture is neglected and the creation of the form (of the group) fails to follow the development of the function (the strategic response to the problem set).

How much structure is necessary?

The extent of structure necessary depends on four factors:

  • The time period the strategy is designed to cover — The longer the time period, the more structure is needed to maintain the TS.
  • How much system or organizational change is required by the strategy — Is there a need to have a broad coordination function apart from the projects or programs the strategy encompasses?
  • Who has the resources to accomplish the change — Are the staff implementing the strategy hired by the TS or by the partners?
  • How much management is necessary — Are there funds or staff that the TS has to manage?

A model of organizational effectiveness

Many academics and government experts exhort community developers, practitioners, and private sector managers to partner and collaborate. Although some inter-organizational systems, such as industry councils, have been around for many years, there are few primers that explain how to do what the experts are urging. The few experts who do give some directions often focus on only one part of the process (such as governance) and ignore the other processes components. This stumps people trying to implement these new group processes.

The model of TS organizational effectiveness I present here consists of three process components, like three legs of a stool; trust-building or people processes, governance or power processes, and coordination or management processes A group builds a new TS organization through conversation and by making decisions about the various options available to them at choice points along the way. Those choice points need to be articulated in a conceptual model so the decisions that are made, build a solid foundation and structure for an effective TS. All three legs — trust-building, governance, and coordination processes — need to be addressed. If a stool is missing a leg, it will fall over when you try to use it. In the same way, a TS will be less effective if it is missing one of these process components.

Examples of tools for each process leg

     1-Trust building processes

Trust-building processes are used to help build relationships among the individuals who come together to form a new group. Many of these tools are from the OD consultant’s tool kit.

     Tools include:

  • Ice breakers-openers or closers-round robin
  • Value discussions
  • Visioning and strategic planning processes
  • Dialogue
  • Adult education principles
  • Roles of group members
  • Social events
  • Storytelling and myth building
  • Process consulting

     2-Governance processes

For the purpose of creating an effective TS, I consider governance processes to be the processes that are focused on using the power mandated to or assumed by the TS. Governance processes are organizational structures, decision-making processes, and communication strategies.

     Tools include:

  • Discussions about power
  • Contracting
  • Terms of reference
  • Establishing roles (for the chair and for members)
  • Policy making
  • Decision making
  • Regular meeting management

     3-Work co-ordination processes

This set of processes and tools is essential for the work that must occur to form a TS and keep it operating and implementing its vision and strategic plan.

     Tools include:

  • Note or minute taking
  • Logic models
  • Work plans
  • Timelines
  • Communications mechanisms (i.e., e-mail, listserv, internal newsletters, meeting agenda packages)
  • Large group meetings
  • Work groups and subcommittees or virtual teams
  • Hiring staff or contracting with a consultant to coordinate the work needed to keep the TS going

Phase 6 – Evaluation: How is the TS performing in terms of performance outcomes, quality of interaction, and member satisfaction?

This phase is not necessarily the end of the process, but can signal renewal and moving thorough the development cycle again. All groups ebb and flow, achieving goals, then defining new directions. Some TSs end and permit something new to arise out of the ashes. The capacity built in member organizations and individuals always makes it possible for organizations to transform into new processes and strategic plans.

One point I make to my students is to separate the evaluation of the strategy (the plan developed by the large system methodology) apart from the evaluation of the effectiveness of the TS process.  Process evaluation should be done much more frequently and informally and can be sued to keep the process on track. What I find when they are combined, the data becomes intertwined and confuses the environmental intervention with the organization process. A detailed TS effectiveness evaluation based on this 6 phase model is available in my book.


TS s are not a really new form of organization. They are in fact a federation of organizations similar to a federation of governments known as the federal model. Most nation states have adopted the federal model for their political organizing principle. What is new is that this federal organizing model is now being used at the organizational level in government, non-profit and business sectors. The development of this organizational form is an adaptive response to rapid change and environmental turbulence in our collective environment. 


Ackoff, R.L. and Fred Emery. On Purposeful Systems. Tavistock  Publications, 1972.

Cummings, Thomas G. “Trans-organizational Development.” Research in Organizational Behaviour, JAI Press. Vol. 6 (1984), pp 367–422.

Cummings Thomas G and Worley, Christopher G, (1996) Organization Development and Change, Chapter 19, Southwestern College Publishing, Cincinnati.

Drucker, Peter F. Post Capitalist Society.HarperCollins, 1993.

Emery, M. and Ron Purser. The Search Conference: A Powerful Method for Planning Organizational Change and Community Action.

Hesselbein, Frances, Marshall Goldsmith and Beckard, Richard eds.(1997) The Organization of the Future, San Francisco, Jossey Bass.

Lippet, Lawrence L. Preferred Futuring.Berrett-Koehler, 1998.

Owen, Harrison. Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide. Abbott Publishing, 1992.

Spencer, Laura. Winning Through Participation. Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1989.

Rackham, Neil, Freidman, Lawrence, and Ruff, Richard,  (1996) Getting Partnering Right, New York, McGraw Hill

Roberts, Joan, Alliances Coalitions and Partnerships, Building Collaborative Organizations, New Society Publishers, 2004

Roberts, Joan, (1998) Perspectives on Partnerships, The Social Partnerships Project, Caledon Institute of Social Policy June  Page 23 “The Community Economic Development Advisory Committee for the City of York: A Municipal Government Partnership”

Weisbord, Marvin, R. Discovering Common Ground. Berrett-Koehler, 1992.

About the Author:

Joan Roberts has over 20 years of experience managing projects, developing organizations and advocating for change. As a housing consultant, city councillor, health promoter and government relations specialist, Joan has developed and led many TSs including one that won a national award.

She completed a Masters Program in Human Systems Intervention at ConcordiaUniversity in 2001.  Currently, she is self employed as a consultant and trainer, working in the non-profit sector.  Workshop topics include building partnerships, capacity building, governance, community economic development, and advocacy.

She contributed an article to the Caledon Institute’s Perspectives on Partnership and has co-authored articles in the Fieldbook on Collaborative Work Systems published by John Wiley and Sons (March 2003).  Joan’s new book entitled Alliances, Coalitions and Partnerships, Building Collaborative Organizations was published by New Society Publishers and released in the fall of 2004. More information can be found at