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."

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