Sunday, October 20, 2013

Communicate to Engage Not Direct

Why is communications so hard?  Why are some civic leaders unwilling to communicate?

Increasingly I answer both questions with one word: complexity.

Communications within complicated organizations is most often used to direct or tell. Leaders communicate to their staff as to what they want them to do. Corporations tell their customers about their products. Funders tell their grantees what outcomes they want.

In complex systems no one is really in a position to tell anyone else what to do. Instead of using communications to “direct,” communications should engage stakeholders in ways that that foster collaborations capable of achieving collective impact. During the early stages of a collaboration it is rarely clear what the stakeholders will do together. Within a complicated organization such uncertainty would rarely be communicated. Instead the organization would wait to communicate until a strategic direction is set. So leaders accustomed to complicated organizations where control and clarity are preferred are reluctant to communicate early and often when they are leading a collaboration in the civic arena -- where complexity is nearly always a given and control and clarity are rare.

Leaders used to communicating to “tell” often have little experience with communicating to engage. And sometimes even the audience is more accustomed to being told rather than being engaged. So a communication inviting stakeholders to engage can cause confusion with stakeholders.

Communications to engage must be designed to facilitate shared understanding among many stakeholders. Such shared understanding is achieved when stakeholders learn together from each other. A communications system that enables many-to-many engagement  is pretty much the opposite of the centralized communications systems used in complicated organizations. Thanks to online tools many-to-many communications is much easier today than ever before. But just because it can be done, doesn’t mean it is either easy nor does it mean we’re comfortable doing it.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Chunky, Not Smooth

Collaboration has aptly been defined (by the Council on Economic Competitiveness) as an unnatural act among non-consenting adults. As a result collaboration is never smooth. But it helps if it is chunky.

John Kania, one of drivers of the Collective Impact framework at FSG, emphasizes that efforts to achieve sustained positive change in complex systems should be broken into chunks to build early wins and momentum. The importance of "chunkiness" hit home last week during a health and human services discussion among community leaders. Some at the table thought narrowing the discussion to "youth issues" might make the conversation less daunting. That wasn't the case, as the conversation soon stalled as the group struggled with where to even start -- early childhood, literacy, educational attainment, health etc. The list of "youth issues" is nearly as endless as "health and human services issues."

Considering what makes for good "chunkiness" can help stakeholders decide where to start. I think three big factors should be considered when collaborators are beginning to consider their first chunk to take on.

1. Manageable -- Is the chunk within the influence of the present group of stakeholders at the table?
2. Meaningful -- If the collaboration is able to create change within that chunk will it make a meaningful difference in the overall issue, or at least give stakeholders the confidence to take on an even more meaningful chunk?
3. Measurable -- Can we measure the progress we are making on changing the "chunk" and the downstream effect that change is having on the overall issue?

If your collaboration can identify a first chunk that is manageable, meaningful and measurable you are on the path toward Collective Impact.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Avoiding Coblaboration

More often than not collaboration efforts rarely get past what one colleague calls the "yak, yak, yak stage" and another more succinctly calls coblaboration. The Council on Competitiveness accurately calls collaboration an unnatural act among non-consenting adults, and this is why it collaboration rarely gets past the talk.

Of course the term "collaboration" is used nearly as freely and meaninglessly as "economic development." The type of collaboration I'm interested in is the kind that results in sustained positive change within the communities that we care about. This is the type of collaboration that is described by FSG's Collective Impact framework.

Borrowing heavily from Ed Morrison's Strategic Doing framework, I believe that getting past the coblaboration requires stakeholders participating in a collaboration to develop "three shareds:"

  • Understanding -- Do the stakeholders have the data, strategic analysis and knowledge they need to fully understand the opportunity they are pursuing together. In our rapidly changing world the context and content of the opportunity may change multiple times through the life of a collaboration. As things change, the shared understanding must change as well. It helps if every meeting among collaborators begins with an affirmation of the shared understanding by the stakeholders.
  • Value -- What value can be created by working together that cannot be created through unilateral action? Is that value sufficient for me and my organization to cross boundaries and collaborate with others? These are essential questions that must be answered for stakeholders to commit to the collaboration process. "What's in it for me?" is not a selfish question at all. Without the creation of clearly understood and articulated shared value, collaboration won't get past talk.
  • Responsibility -- One way to test the level of value being created is the level of responsibility stakeholders are willing to assume to create the value. If the stakeholders expect others to be responsible they obviously have a low assessment of the value. Realistically, most stakeholders are skeptical about the ability of a collaboration to create the predicted value. After all they've been unable to create such value on their own, so why should they think someone else could help them do it? That is why most stakeholders aren't willing to assume 100% of the responsibility for creating the value in the early days of a collaboration. Instead outside funders -- public, private and philanthropic -- often must catalyze the collaboration by providing the resources and support needed to launch the process and generate the initial value. However, funders should design the collaboration so that over time -- as the value is proven -- the stakeholders assume more of the responsibility for the value created.
When stakeholders understand the opportunity, identify the value and assume responsibility collaborations can move beyond yakking and blabbing to generate sustained positive change.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Why Engagement Looks So Hard

In several meetings recently where leaders addressed diverse priorities I heard several variations of this common complaint: Engaging diverse stakeholders is difficult, takes a ton of time and rarely increases our ability to sustain positive change in the communities that we care about.

I'm sure my friend Jack Ricchiuto's new book, The Power of Circles, will do a much better job of answering the "how" of engagement than I could ever do. But I have a theory on why it rarely produces the desired results: The wrong kind of organizations are conducting the engagement.

Most organizations that conduct engagement are designed to address complicated issues. As Will Allen (and so many others) explains, complicated issues are dramatically different than complex issues. Simply, complicated issues can be resolved with a technical solution and complex issues can only be solved with solutions that emerge from the system involved.

Organizations designed to deal with the complicated (let's call them "complicated organizations") tend to design processes that rely on a command-and-control framework to implement a technical solutions. Such processes do not work on complex issues, and complicated organizations aren't comfortable designing engagements that enable emergent solutions.

Complicated organizations are accustomed to engaging stakeholders in environments where they control the conversation. In a complex system, there is no control. Most complicated organizations are used to choosing who they engage with. In a complex system, it is the system that determines who needs to be engaged.

To design effective engagements in complex systems we need to design frameworks, processes and tools that promote emergent solutions. This is the heart of FSG's framework for Collective Impact. Engaging stakeholders is a primary role of what FSG calls a "backbone" entity. To be successful, backbones need to be designed for complexity.

Organizations designed for complexity are designed for engagement. Complicated organizations are designed for control. Asking complicated organizations to conduct engagement in complex systems is like sending a hammer to do a screwdriver's job: It can be done, but the damage done usually exceeds the benefits. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Redefining Regionalism

Regionalism -- like many "isms" -- is a word that raises many fears. Regionalism usually conjures up thoughts of control and consolidation. Someone from "over there" is going to show up and tell us what to do.

If possible, I'd redefine regionalism to be about creating value for communities by helping them strengthen their assets and their connections to the regional economy.

Such a definition is rooted in these basic assumptions:

  • Economies are regional
  • Communities have assets, not economies (See my earlier post on why I hate "economic development")
  • Growing, opportunity-rich economies have strong, well-connected assets that generate innovation, entrepreneurship and inclusion.
Regionalism therefore should help communities attract, develop, retain and engage diverse, talented people who have access to the resources needed to innovate products that create more opportunities for residents, existing companies and new enterprises. 

That's a long way from regionalism being about the consolidation of local governments. 

No Glamour in Being a Backbone

The popularity of the Collective Impact framework for sustained positive community change championed by FSG has generated considerable interest in the notion of "backbone organizations."

In short, backbones coordinate the actions of diverse stakeholders that participate in a collaboration organized around the Collecitve Impact framework. Because of the growing popularity of the "Collective Impact" approach, many non-profit leaders are under the impression that becoming a backbone is a sure-fire path to funding and recognition. Some are clamoring to position themselves as the "backbone" for whatever cause their organization is addressing. Some communities are swimming in wannabe backbones.

However, being a backbone is not a role for those interested in attention or glamour. The role of the backbone is very much like the role of the IT department back in the early days of networking.

In the early days of corporate computer networks -- WANs and LANs -- and the early 1990s version of the internet, poorly designed networks that lacked adequate capacity could bring all activity within an organization to a halt. I worked for corporation that tried for a year to get by with only enough bandwidth that email was delivered intermittently. "E-mail is not intended for instant communication," the head of IT responded to my complaints. IT departments were frustrated that there never seemed to be enough bandwidth -- or backbone -- to keep folks happy. Every time more bandwidth was added users found new things to do with it -- increasing their productivity and effectiveness. Creating demand for even more bandwidth.

Such is the case, as well, for civic networks that are using the Collective Impact framework. The backbone is what enables the stakeholders to communicate with each other, align their actions and assess their collective progress. If there isn't sufficient backbone capacity the collaboration slows down, if more capacity is added more collaboration can occur, creating demand for more capacity.

Of course the analogy isn't perfect as a computer network is much easier to coordinate -- data can be directed via basic protocols. The protocols of a civic network need to be much more sophisticated to enable quality interactions among diverse individuals and organizations.

Being a backbone is a behind-the-scenes role; often under appreciated by leaders (and funders) focused on the delivery services rather than how that delivery was made possible. But just as the IT department is critical to the success of any business of substance, backbones are essential to any collaboration interested in achieving sustained positive change.