Maintenance of cross-sector partnerships: the role of frames in sustained collaboration29 May 2018
We examine the framing mechanisms used to maintain a cross-sector partnership (XSP) that was created to address a complex long-term social issue. We study the first eight years of existence of an XSP that aims to create a market for recycled phosphorus, a nutrient that is critical to crop growth but whose natural reserves have dwindled significantly. Drawing on 27 interviews and over 3,000 internal documents, we study the evolution of different frames used by diverse actors in an XSP. We demonstrate the role of framing in helping actors to avoid some of the common pitfalls for an XSP, such as debilitating conflict, and in creating sufficient common ground to sustain collaboration. As opposed to a commonly held assumption in the XSP literature, we find that collaboration in a partnership does not have to result in a unanimous agreement around a single or convergent frame regarding a contentious issue. Rather, successful collaboration between diverse partners can also be achieved by maintaining a productive tension between different frames through ‘optimal’ frame plurality – not excessive frame variety that may prevent agreements from emerging, but the retention of a select few frames and the deletion of others towards achieving a narrowing frame bandwidth. One managerial implication is that resources need not be focussed on reaching a unanimous agreement among all partners on a single mega-frame vis-à-vis a contentious issue, but can instead be used to kindle a sense of unity in diversity that allows sufficient common ground to emerge, despite the variety of actors and their positions.