Background: Quality improvement collaboratives (QICs) continue to be widely used, yet evidence for their effectiveness is equivocal. We sought to explain what happened in Stroke 90:10, a QIC designed to improve stroke care in 24 hospitals in the North West of England. Our study drew in part on the literature on collective action and inter-organizational collaboration. This literature has been relatively neglected in evaluations of QICs, even though they are founded on principles of co-operation and sharing.Methods: We interviewed 32 professionals in hospitals that participated in Stroke 90:10, conducted a focus group with the QIC faculty team, and reviewed purposively sampled documents including reports and newsletters. Analysis was based on a modified form of Framework Analysis, combining sensitizing constructs derived from the literature and new, empirically derived thematic categories.Results: Improvements in stroke care were attributed to QIC participation by many professionals. They described how the QIC fostered a sense of community and increased attention to stroke care within their organizations. However, participants' experiences of the QIC varied. Starting positions were different; some organizations were achieving higher levels of performance than others before the QIC began, and some had more pre-existing experience of quality improvement methods. Some participants had more to learn, others more to teach. Some evidence of free-riding was found. Benchmarking improvement was variously experienced as friendly rivalry or as time-consuming and stressful. Participants' competitive desire to demonstrate success sometimes conflicted with collaborative aims; some experienced competing organizational pressures or saw the QIC as duplication of effort. Experiences of inter-organizational collaboration were influenced by variations in intra-organizational support.Conclusions: Collaboration is not the only mode of behavior likely to occur within a QIC. Our study revealed a mixed picture of collaboration, free-riding and competition. QICs should learn from work on the challenges of collective action; set realistic goals; account for context; ensure sufficient time and resources are made available; and carefully manage the collaborative to mitigate the risks of collaborative inertia and unhelpful competitive or anti-cooperative behaviors. Individual organizations should assess the costs and benefits of collaboration as a means of attaining quality improvement.