Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Backbone of What?

The other morning one of the my favorite philanthropists asked a critical question rarely heard within the numerous collaborations that I am part of: "What exactly are you a backbone of?"

As I noted earlier, the popularity of the collective impact framework has resulted in many organizations asserting to be a backbone -- i.e. they perform key functions to facilitate the type of collaboration necessary to achieve sustained positive change within complex systems.

Backbone functions are indeed essential to moving from coblaboration to collaboration. But being a backbone is neither easy nor glamorous. And it is only possible to be an effective backbone if there is agreement on the boundaries and functions of the system being served by the backbone. Backbones need to know what they are the backbone of.

Defining the boundaries of a complex system is -- obviously -- complex. Systems consist of diverse stakeholders from multiple sectors performing a multitude of inter-connected functions. For example, the boundaries of an education system could involve everything from pre-natal health care to senior citizen classes. Anyone want to sign up to try to be a backbone for that expansive and complex a system? And while many education backbones use the term "cradle to career," rarely do they try to build a common agenda around functions that are generally considered part of the "workforce system."

The overlapping nature of complex systems can overwhelm stakeholders who are trying to organize themselves to develop the conditions required to achieve collective impact. Clearly defining the boundaries of the system being served by a backbone dramatically increases the chances of success.  

Many of the Strive initiatives that attract a lot of well-deserved attention narrowly define the education system by drawing boundaries that involve just a few school districts, not all of the districts within a community. The Summit Education Initiative is more ambitious, acting as a backbone for 15 school districts within a very diverse county and many more pre-school programs.

What Strive and SEI have in common are very clear boundaries of the systems they serve and the functions performed within those boundaries.

Most systems don't have the relatively clear boundaries of school districts. For example, where would one draw the boundaries of the system that supports entrepreneurship within an economy? Or how about the boundaries of a workforce system where more than 25% of residents cross a county line on their way to work every morning?

A map can help stakeholders visualize the boundaries and functions of the system to be served by the backbone. Stakeholders should be continuously engaged in drawing the map, defining the functions included and identifying the organizations that perform those functions. As the map is built (it's never static), stakeholders can begin to identify the limits of their influence and begin to draw boundaries and eliminate certain functions.

Backbones need such a map to know what they are the backbone of.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Building the Will for Collaboration

This post is the third in a three part series exploring the question, “Can collaboration be learned?”   This is an edited email exchange between Alison Gold of Living Cities, Curtis Ogden of the Interaction Institute for Social Change, and myself.  When we last left off, Alison had posed a series of questions about identifying and cultivating the will to collaborate.
On January 27, 2014 12:33 PM, "Curtis Ogden" wrote:
Alison, I really like your questions and feel like they would be great to take to a wider audience.  I will say that I am profoundly influenced by Carol Sanford’s  mentoring in all of this, and the belief that personal development is key to evolving our will, moving from a more self-centered perspective to “other” perspective, to understanding the symbiotic nature of different levels of systems. 
I think that some of what we at IISC have seen and helped develop as skillful and deeply rooted “Facilitative Leadership” is indicative of an evolved will that balances agency with external considering.  Facilitative Leadership includes the following:
  • Embodying authenticity (being real)
  • Accepting “others as legitimate others” (Humberto Maturana’s definition of love)
  • Demonstrating concern for equity and fairness, not just as moral imperatives, but as keys to survival
  • Curiosity, receptivity, and flexibility
  • The ability to see patterns
  • Recognizing and engaging power dynamics while leveraging privilege for collective benefit
  • Cultivating individual, organizational, larger systemic/network development
  • Creating conditions for people to be their best value-adding selves
On Jan 27, 2014 1:29 PM, “Chris Thompson” wrote:
This is very helpful perspective and echoes a lot of the work of Paul Born of the Tamarack Institute, who is one of the leading advocates of Collective Impact. His book Community Conversations is invaluable in this area.  More specifically, I believe that there are signs that key stakeholders indeed have the “will” to collaborate at the collective impact level. Organizations that have the will:
  • Value data more than opinions.
  • Focus on creating value not protecting turf.
  • Assume shared responsibility for sustaining the capacity to collaborate rather than insisting it is someone else’s responsibility.
On January 28, 2014 9:18 AM, “Curtis Ogden” wrote:
Thanks, Chris.  For what it’s worth, I came across this Vaclav Havel quote today, and it seems relevant to this notion of building will around collaboration:
"By perceiving ourselves as part of the river, we take responsibility for the river as a whole."

Tell us your experiences. Do you think we “take responsibility for the river as a whole?” Share your thoughts with us at: Alison Gold @AKGold11, Chris Thompson @ccarsonthompson, Curtis Ogden @curtisogden, or leave a comment below.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Community Ethic and Collaboration

Alison Gold, Curtis Ogden and I continued our e-mail conversation on can collaboration be learned. I am intrigued by Curtis' framing of what it takes to collaborate. See yesterday's initial post.

And readers of this blog won't be surprised that I found a way to bring Aldo Leopold into this conversation.

A big thank you to Alison for getting this whole effort off the ground and keeping it going.

From: Alison Gold
Date: Thursday, January 23, 2014 9:17 AMTo: Curtis Ogden, Chris Thompson
 Subject: Re: Can Collaboration Be Learned
All of this begs the question, how do you know when the will is there? Or isn’t? We seem to keep getting back to this point …

>>On Jan 23, 2014, at 9:27 AM, "Curtis Ogden" wrote:
I think that will can come down to two basic factors – having a strong “internal locus of control,” guided by and balanced with "external considering."

A strong internal locus of control demonstrates some sense of responsibility and agency regarding one's self and situation. That is, we do not feel like we are total victims of circumstance, we don't immediately default to blaming others (in word and deed).

Of course, this can be overdone, tipping into ego-centrism, which is where external considering comes in. It is what Peter Drucker often preached in terms of "leading beyond the walls." It is a demonstrated sense of responsibility to and embeddedness in the next larger system of which one is apart, an understanding that the degree to which we are whole, it is in service of the next whole. This is the reality of living systems; we earn our keep by being of value to the larger body/ecosystem.

I actually like the direction this conversation is heading, because I think developing indicators for this is akin to what I am talking about with some colleagues regarding measuring "network mindset" and being a "responsible human."

>>On Jan 23, 2014, at 9:35 AM, "Alison Gold" wrote:
I’ve actually been playing around with an idea related to this at Living Cities. Mine has been less about the individual, which I’m excited to learn more about and exchange ideas and ask questions about, but more about how you can get a community in a productive zone of urgency to take on a problem.

>> On Jan 23, 2014, at 8:43 PM, "Chris Thompson" wrote:
I do want to chime in on two issues you’ve both raised.

Developing the skill, attitude and will of collaborative leaders is indeed critical. I am working with two community-based leadership programs on this very issue. Many communities have leadership programs that are designed to help existing/emerging civic, corporate, non-profit leaders expand their networks and enhance their understanding of key issues within their communities. Rarely do the programs work to enhance the leadership development of the participants, and more rarer yet do they work on the skill, attitude and will issues Curtis raises. If our communities are going to enhance their ability to address the complex challenges and opportunities they face, we believe leadership programs should focus on promoting collaborative leadership skills and attitudes—which are significantly different from organizational leadership skills and attitudes.

I look forward to borrowing from Curtis as the two leadership programs I’m working with refine their thinking and shape their efforts, and if we’re successful we can embed those skills into Alison’s community-based approach.
And now to the issue of being a responsible human. The “will” for this work, as Curtis noted is rooted in “a worldview that helps us to viscerally understand how we are interconnected, why we must do the work together, how we suffer and can get in our own way when we do not.” This is a worldview that helps us be a responsible human.

This visceral understanding is what the great Aldo Leopold wrote about in his classic work on complex systems, ecology and man’s interaction with nature – A Sand County Almanac. I first read the book in high school biology and have reread it many times since but only relatively recently realized Aldo’s wisdom applies not only to man’s interaction with the complex ecosystem he lovingly called “the land,” but also the complex systems that I work in every day.

The visceral understanding Curtis is describing is what Aldo referred to as an “ethic.” His land ethic described man’s responsibility to cherish the land rather than consume it. Curtis is describing what I might call a “community ethic” or a “systems ethic.” Curtis’ world view, as Aldo writes, is “a product of social evolution because nothing so important as an ethic is ever 'written'… It evolves in the minds of a thinking community.
Aldo also described a corollary to the “profit motive” that he called the “community motive.” While the profit motive isn’t a major driver within the civic/nonprofit space where we work it isn’t a huge stretch to say that the desire of individual nonprofits to attract funding for their “isolated impact” projects is similar to the individual corporation’s “profit motive.” Understanding that we can only achieve the sustained positive change we seek by working together shifts us toward a “community motive.”

To close, I will adapt one last Aldo quote. He wrote:
“Acts of conservation without the requisite desire and skills are futile. To create these desires and skills and the community motive is the task of education.”

In our context, I’d modify the quote to:
“Acts of collaboration for collective impact without the requisite desire and skills are futile. To create these desires and skills and the community motive is the task of people like Alison, Curtis, Chris and all of the other advocates for sustained positive change in the communities we care about.”

>>On Jan 24, 2014, at 11:09 AM, "Alison Gold" wrote:
Curtis, I’m really loving your frame on will-skill-attitude. I feel like the work that I’ve been focusing on about cross-sector collaboration has been largely focused on skill with a bit of attitude. In part, because my own experiences staffing collaborations, and my current organization which funds them, in some ways assumes that the “will” is there. But, increasingly that assumption is the kicker. It’s the difference between the collaborations that have impact, and ones that meet to meet (I love when Chris refers to this as coblaboration.) And, here’s the thing, I have a lot of questions about the will piece and making it practical.

  • How do you know if will is present? Is it a Justice Potter Stewart “I know it when I see it” thing? And if so, could you share what you’ve seen that are some indicators of will (or lack thereof)?

  • And also, what do you do if the will isn’t present? Can it be cultivated? Or is an effort better off calling it quits? If it can be cultivated, how have you or others gone about doing it?

Eager to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Can Collaboration Be Learned?

When I was thinking about starting this blog I thought I would focus on what I was learning about efforts to improve regional economies, but I soon found myself writing about what I was learning about what it takes to get stakeholders from diverse sectors to work together within complex systems. And two people I was learning from were Alison Gold of Living Cities and Curtis Ogden of the Interaction Institute for Social Change. This being the age of digital networks I didn't know either Curtis or Alison, but that didn't mean I couldn't learn from them. Then one day Alison reached out and we traded a few emails, talked on the phone and then she suggested that three of us try to learn together in a more structured way via that old-fashioned communications tool: email. And that we'd share it with others.

So far it's been a great learning experience. Here's Part 1 of our learning exchange. 

A big thank you to Liz Skelton for helping us get our conversation started.

From: Chris Thompson 
Sent: Sunday, January 05, 2014 1:39 PM
To: Alison Gold; Curtis Ogden
Subject: Can Collaboration Be Learned
Based on my Twitter feed I suspect more people than ever have this as their New Year’s Resolution: “I will collaborate more.” The oracle himself, Thomas Friedman, sang its praises in this morning’s TimesThis article, by Liz Skelton at Social Leadership Australia, got me wondering if more people do resolve to collaborate, are there things they can work on – what Liz describes as “capabilities” – that better prepare them to fulfill such a resolution? In short, can collaboration be learned?

Liz’s capabilities are targeted at experienced, motivated collaborators. I wonder more about what can be done to help those who might resolve to collaborate, but really aren’t experienced or motivated. A few years ago, the Council on Competitiveness described regional collaboration as “an unnatural act among non-consenting adults.” That definition resonated with my experience in regional economic work. Non-consenting adults don’t see the value proposition in collaboration.

Liz gets to the issue of value proposition in the first capability, identifying “what impact you can have together that you can’t have alone.” Asking that question will help the eager student sharpen their collaboration skills, but the non-consenter needs an even more tangible capability. He (allow me to be sexist and refer to non-consenters as men) needs to be able to identify what impact this collaboration will have on him or his organization. If that specific, tangible value proposition isn’t clear, he won’t learn to collaborate. Even if it was his New Year’s resolution.
Our job – as advocates of cross-sector collaboration – is to help non-consenters identify such a clear value proposition. Now if I could only learn how to do that better.

>>On Jan 7, 2014, at 4:27 PM, "Alison Gold" wrote:

Thanks for getting the ball rolling, Chris. I’m going to take a crack at a different question that you raised: Can you teach people to collaborate? The optimistic Midwesterner in me says “of course!” and that Liz Skelton’s post is as true for novice collaborators, as for experienced ones. Particularly her points on being clear on what you’re trying to achieve and acknowledging how each organization and/or individual has contributed to the current result and needs to change to produce a different one. However, the realist in me —the one who’s staffed cross-sector partnerships in communities, and now works at an organization that funds them—knows that even those two things are difficult and messy and don’t happen overnight, or even in a year’s time. And I actually think this is one of the other great challenges of collaborations—pacing.

While I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer to pacing in collaboration, my sense is that it’s important to name a shared goal as early in the process as possible. I used to work at a chamber of commerce that was founded in the 1880s. In its conference room was prominently displayed the letter that led to the organization’s founding. It was from the publisher of the local newspaper to 6 other prominent businessmen inviting them to get together to address transportation and sanitation issues (less delicately: horse poop in the streets). Those gentlemen knew why they were collaborating and what they were trying to achieve from the get go. The work of their collaboration was to figure out how to work together to solve the problem.

What I’ve learned at Living Cities, through The Integration Initiative and our research on cross-sector partnerships, is that collaborations that have impact are not so different from those seven businessmen. They engage in two types of behaviors: trust building and maintenance and problem-solving (for a fuller exploration of both ideas follow the link and check out pages 16-19). I’d even go so far as to say that these two behaviors are actually the primary work collaborations are hired to do because they get partners to the point where they can work honestly with one another and where they have a shared understanding of what is producing the current results. I’d also say that trust building and problem-solving are prerequisites for getting a collaboration from clarity on its goal to the point where all the partners can answer Liz’s excellent fifth point, “what’s my piece of the mess?”

But, I’m eager to hear what Curtis thinks.

>>On Jan 23, 2014 at 9:03 AM, "Curtis Ogden" wrote:

At IISC we have built our organization’s mission on the conviction that collaboration is both a necessary and teachable skill in pursuit of social change. I have first-hand experience of seeing people grow in their collaborative capacities. But as your contributions and correspondence already point out, it’s not just about skill. It’s about commitment, and caring . . .
If you don’t see the value of collaboration or are unwilling to take a leap of faith, then the horse is not even at the water. So there’s got to be some openness. And I’m glad to report that I/we have witnessed some "conversion" experiences in my eight years at the Interaction Institute for Social Change. To be sure, I have also seen my fair share of those who resisted to the bitter end, if they stayed that long. So what makes for the difference? Let me try to break some of this down a bit. The elements of collaboration (IMHO):

  • Skill – creating conditions for effective collaboration/building trust, designing effective process, deft facilitation, generative listening and inquiry, getting on the balcony/holding the big picture, thinking broadly about “success” (results, process, relationships), celebration of others’ success, being a connector/network weaver, understanding social/power dynamics . . .

  • Attitude – not knowing, humility, bring your expertise but don’t get trapped by it, belief in abundance, appreciation of difference and diversity, authenticity, curiosity, caring, eagerness to learn, seek win-win, respect for others’ perspectives . . .

  • Will – the drive for ongoing personal and systemic development, to push through and keep the collaborative going even when the plane starts to shake, eyes on the prize, willing to put reputation and resources on the line . . .
If we think about these elements as leverage points in an individual or collective/group system, then the deepest and most profound is will. When the drive is there, it really helps to make the rest flow. Without will, well, then we have a problem. Will and skill without the right attitude requires coaching (reminds me of some of the stories I’ve been hearing about different players as I’ve watched the Australian Open who have worked on their internal motives to become better players). When will and attitude are there, then skill-building can come relatively easily.

So I think what we may be talking about is what we do if the will is not there, because let’s face it, we’ve seen those collaboratives and networks that have functioned well until the going got tough, and then everyone got out of there. For me, will is about cultivating a worldview that helps us to viscerally understand how we are interconnected, why we must do the work together, how we suffer and can get in our own way when we do not . . . I’ve had some experience around this kind of transformation (and I would use that very word for it). It stems from a holistic kind of understanding, one that requires immersive experience as one is grasped by something larger. While this might sound rather “out there” or of too tall an order, I think what we have done and seen through programs like the Barr Fellows (http://interactioninstitute.org/blog/2013/07/09/a-new-paradigm-for-leadership-development-2/)and Community Practitioners Network (http://interactioninstitute.org/blog/2014/01/15/networks-values-before-vision) gets at it.
Let me stop there for now.
So what do you think? What does it take to learn to collaborate? Share your thoughts with us at:
Or leave a comment.
- See more at: http://www.livingcities.org/blog/?id=230#sthash.TjtulhYP.dpuf

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Collaboration Requires Confrontation

One of the many paradoxes of collaboration is that it requires confrontation. That we live in an era that abhors confrontation is one of the reasons why achieving collective impact is so difficult.

To achieve sustained positive change in complex system, we must be willing to embrace confrontation on three different levels.

First, we must confront the reality that we seek to change. A colleague recently observed that she has only seen collective impact occur when stakeholders collectively refused to tolerate the inequity they saw within their community. Such refusal requires us to confront the hunger, homelessness, joblessness etc. in our communities very directly.

We cannot simply say we are trying to create more jobs. We must confront that there aren't enough jobs -- and begin to understand why that intolerable reality exists.

More often than not answering "why" leads us to confront that what we are already doing isn't working. Rare is the civic challenge that isn't being addressed by some organization in our community. That is particularly the case in the area of economic development. The sheer number of organizations addressing every conceivable economic priority can be overwhelming. How well those organizations are addressing those priorities is a completely separate matter. Holding organizations accountable for their performance requires confrontation. Our desire to avoid such confrontation is why so many organizations are able to declare programmatic success while the desired change remains as elusive as ever.

And finally we must be willing to confront that often an organization is unable to achieve the desired change because they have the wrong leader.

Anyone who has been in management for any period of time has made a bad hire (and I've made more than my share). Confronting such hiring mistakes and making the needed personnel change is very difficult for most of us. A private equity exec once shared with me that all of the boards of his companies had a common regret: Delaying making a needed change at the top.

If cutting ties with the wrong leader is tough in the private sector, it's nearly impossible in the civic sector. The bottom-line nature of the private sector is missing in the civic sphere. So it is common to hear, as I did last week: "Can we find him another job?" Rather than confront the reality that the executive's failure is causing real problems for real people we'll spend invaluable time trying to figure out how to get the executive another job.

If we are to improve our ability to achieve sustained positive change we must learn to confront what is keeping us from success. Hall of Fame football coach Bill Parcells was right when he said: "If you are afraid of confrontation, you are not going to do very well."