Sunday, October 19, 2014

Answering the Genie

In my efforts to help civic leaders achieve sustained positive change within their communities I am increasingly relying on a magical genie.

I ask the leaders to imagine that a magical genie shows up at the doorstep of their community and offers to grant the community three wishes. Then I ask them to answer three questions:

1. What would the community's wishes be?
2. Who would decide what those wishes would be?
3. How would the community go about deciding the answers to the first two questions?

Too often, civic leaders have little idea how to begin answering those questions.

In a speech Saturday, Boston Federal Reserve President Eric Rosengren reinforced the value of being able to answer these kinds of questions. Of course the Federal Reserve doesn't believe in magic genies (although it has acted as one on behalf of Wall Street at times), Rosengren noted that the Fed's research found communities with a common vision, effective civic leadership and strong cross-sector collaborations are more likely to experience equitable growth.

While no community will ever be promised three wishes, civic leaders can develop the capacity to identify opportunities for positive change and sustain effective collaborations to achieve that change.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Collaboration Chickens and Eggs

My previous post on the four conditions that are required for effective collaborations prompted Sandy Maxey to wonder how communities that lack the leadership, trust, high-performing organizations and capacity that I believe is necessary for collaboration can develop those capabilities. She noted that my advice was a little too much of a chicken-egg conundrum.

I promised her a post on how communities can develop these four capabilities and here it goes.

First, there are many kinds of collaboration. I am talking about the kind of collaboration that is necessary to achieve large-scale change within the messy, complex systems that make up our communities. The kind of change necessary, for example, to go from dead last in entrepreneurship to one of the top destinations for venture capital between the coasts (something that Northeast Ohio has done over the last 15 years).

Second, I firmly believe that Traci Jadlos of the United Way of Cleveland is 100% correct when she said this kind of change only occurs when leaders refuse to tolerate the inequity they see in the community they care about. If we tolerate inequity (in whatever form it may come within our communities) it will persist. Sandy appropriately expressed concern that collaboration is nothing more than a collective effort at "reinforcing stasis." If a collaboration isn't rooted in an intolerance of the status quo, then it will result in nothing more than coblaboration.

Galvanizing leaders help us recognize the inequity and lower our tolerance for it. But what do we do if there is no such galvanizing leader? We have to either make one or become one. Galvanizing leaders don't necessarily have to have positional authority. But they do need to be able to unite other leaders around a cause. Because I work for philanthropy in a community rich in philanthropic leaders, it isn't surprising that I believe leaders of philanthropic entities are well positioned to play the role of galvanizing leader. It is often a role they prefer not to play -- foundation leaders are often uncomfortable being "out front." But if a foundation is devoted to improving educational outcomes doesn't it make sense that the leader of that foundation try to unite others around a common education goal? We have learned that grants alone cannot transform educational outcomes (just ask Bill Gates). Philanthropic leaders have the freedom to step beyond their own organizational walls and unite other stakeholders.

Because of the critical role galvanizing leadership plays in our communities, we should expect our leadership development organizations to help participants develop the necessary skills to become better collaborative leaders. Too many community-based leadership programs are focused on reinforcing the status quo than they are in helping their communities develop the leadership needed to achieve real change. It has been gratifying to work with both Leadership Cleveland and Leadership Akron to develop substantive curriculum that will help those communities develop more collaborative leaders.

One of the most important skills of collaborative leaders is the ability to build trust. And trust is one of the 4 conditions for effective collaboration. What do we do if our civic culture is rife with distrust? We need to change that culture. And, as Kirstin Toth of the GAR Foundation says, trust isn't built in group settings, it is built one-on-one. So if you want to bring change within messy, complex system the first step isn't to call a big meeting. It is to start meeting one-on-one with key players to identify what they want, need and believe. Eventually, you'll be ready to call a big meeting. But start by building trust one person at a time.

I've observed that high-performing organizations are much more willing to build trust with others than are mediocre or poor performing orgs. High-performing organizations trust that the value they provide is recognized in the community, and they are willing to take the risk of working with others. Struggling organizations are so focused on their own needs they cannot afford to use valuable resources to build relationships with others. Lower performing organizations are usually the first ones in a meeting to highlight how important it is that they get credit for their work. What do we do if our community doesn't have many high-performing organizations? Or worse, what if the organizations are all declaring programmatic success yet nothing is changing? Measurement is the first step toward improving performance. Once again, I believe philanthropy has an important role in making sure common, meaningful measurements are in place to assess progress and outcomes. A colleague laments that too often funders deploy what he calls "manufactured rigor" instead of meaningful measurement. "Manufactured rigor" keeps grantees busy tracking activities and outputs, not substantive outcomes. Measurement matters -- what we measure, how we measure and how we use what we learn to adapt what we do.

Measurement requires capacity. How do we measure our community's progress on education, poverty, job creation etc. if there isn't the capacity to do so? There are other critical capacities required to make collaboration work, including communication. How do we create capacity where there is none? Ideally, the individual organizations working within a system will recognize the need for "collaboration capacity" and together they will identify and/or seek the resources needed to build such capacity. The best kind of "collaboration capacity" is designed by the players within the system; players who no longer are willing to tolerate the inequities they see. The worst kind of "collaboration capacity" is designed by funders with minimal input from the players within the system. The other players often resent this new capacity (which is consuming resources that should go to each of the players...just ask them). They view this new capacity not as a resource, but as a competitor. Galvanizing leaders need to make the case for "collaboration capacity," and make sure the capacity is designed to meet the needs of the high-performing organizations who trust each other to use that capacity to achieve the desired change.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

4 Conditions for Collaboration

Collaboration is necessary to achieve sustained, positive change within the messy, complex systems that make up a region’s economy. These systems – made up of diverse players from multiple sectors -- shape the talent development, education, business development, entrepreneurship, innovation and other critical outcomes that determine the vibrancy and competitiveness of a regional economy.

Over the last eight years working with the Fund for Our Economic Future I have learned that for collaborations to generate and sustain positive outcomes four essential conditions must be met:

  • Galvanizing Leadership
  • Trust
  • High-performing organizations
  • Capacity

Galvanizing Leadership – While messy, complex systems are beyond any individual’s control, leadership is critical. Galvanizing leaders unite diverse stakeholders and persuade them to no longer tolerate the inequity to be addressed or to seize the opportunity to be pursued. Galvanizing leaders have the ability to stand above the fray of intramural battles. Galvanizing leaders hold the group together when the collaboration stumbles – and they all stumble. Sometimes the source of their leadership ability is their financial capacity, sometimes it is the sheer force of personality.

Trust – Every participant in a collaboration is taking a risk. They are assuming some level of shared responsibility for a process they don’t control. We are more willing to take risks – putting our social and fiscal capital on the line – with those that we trust. This is why Stephen Covey has observed that collaborations move at the speed of trust. The level of trust among the players within a system reflects the culture and experience of the individual players, as well as their collective experience. Trust may not be high initially, but it can be built. And if trust is very low, actions can be taken to build trust among players long before the collaboration is shaped.

High-Performing Organizations – Sustained positive change isn’t produced by mediocrity. Asking ineffective organizations to collaborate assures an ineffective collaboration. Players within a system must be committed to high-performance. A key question galvanizing leaders must consider before calling for a collaboration is whether there are sufficient high-performing organizations within the system to achieve the desired change. If there aren’t, the galvanizing leader should focus initial efforts on improving the accountability and performance of key organizations.

Capacity – Collaboration doesn’t happen through magic. It requires hard work – including constant communications among players to build trust, alignment of efforts and measurement and evaluation of outcomes. FSG has appropriately dubbed this capacity as the "backbone" of collaboration of collective impact. FSG highlighted in the initial article on collective impact that the participating organizations within a collaboration have no excess capacity to perform these and other essential functions. I refer to this capacity as "buying the donuts." Someone needs to organize the meeting of the collaborators, and that invariably calls for buying donuts and coffee for the early morning meetings that are held so that the collaboration doesn't interfere with our regular work. Of course, this capacity does much more than buy food. It helps build trust among stakeholders and helps identify what is required to be a high-performing organization. Collaborations demand capacity.

Galvanizing leadership, trust, high-performing organizations and capacity are critical elements to sustain collaborations that generate sustained, positive change in the communities we care about. Philanthropy is distinctly positioned to provide such leadership; create environments where trust can be built; to insist upon high-performance; and be a source of capacity.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Journey Through the Lonely Middle

Generational poverty is one of our society's most wicked, complex challenges. The layers of issues and barriers are often beyond our collective understanding. They are so overwhelming they often paralyze us from acting.

We need a story that we can tell ourselves that will help us understand the challenge and inform our actions. I heard that story today. Nichole Booker of the United Way of Summit County told me the story. I cannot do her version justice and I am modifying the way she tells it, but here it goes:

We are born into one of two systems. One is a work-based system. The second is a poverty-based system. Each system is full of its hurdles, challenges and stresses. As we grow, we are taught by our elders and our peers how to survive within the system to which we are born. Some of us develop the skills necessary to thrive within the system. We may come into contact with the other system, but we aren't really familiar with it. Our friends, our supporters, our family -- everything we really know -- is within our native system.

A person born into the poverty-based system may be motivated to leave and desire to enter the work-based system. And when they do they begin the journey through what Nichole calls the "lonely middle." It is lonely because the person must leave behind the known and the trusted. They haven't yet developed familiarity with the new system. They don't know who to trust. Nor do they know what is expected of them. The new system is foreign -- as foreign as if someone from the work-based system had jumped on an airplane for Japan without knowing the language or having any friends or contacts. Rare is the person born into the work-based system who is willing to make a "lonely middle" journey. Those who are willing are called entrepreneurs.

A "lonely middle" journey is terrifying, no matter what system we are born into. Yet, those of us who are born into the work-based system regularly demean and dismiss those born into generational poverty for not being willing to make the journey.

Nichole speaks regularly to the brave natives of the poverty-based system who are about to embark on the "lonely middle" journey thanks to the work of Bridges Out of Poverty. She encourages them to embrace the anxiety and uncertainty. She tells them that such loneliness is a sign that they are making progress. They are leaving behind a system that, no matter how familiar, limits their possibilities.

Of course, those who have made the journey should be encouraged to help others follow in their footsteps. But the answer to the wicked, complex challenge of generational poverty isn't just rooted in persuading more people to make that journey. The answer is in what must we -- those of us who were fortunate enough to be born into the work-based system -- do to help make their journey both a little less lonely and a lot shorter.

2 Kinds of Civc Business Leadership

Organized groups of business leaders often play a critical role in designing or supporting civic projects in our communities. While it's an over-simplification these civic projects broadly fall into two categories:

  • Physical Development Projects -- Infrastructure and amenities are critical to the vibrancy of our communities and business leaders often lead campaigns for parks, new development districts, roads, airports and similar efforts. These are transaction-driven projects and lend themselves to clear timelines and hierarchical design. Interestingly, these projects don't likely have a direct impact on the bottom line of a company providing the leadership. Yes, a business will benefit from the building of a new waterfront district that will make the city more attractive and therefore help attract or retain talent, but that benefit is very indirect.
  • Competitiveness Projects -- A community's competitiveness is determined by several factors, including its inclusiveness, its innovation capacity, its entrepreneurial climate and the educational attainment and skills of its residents. Improving competitiveness requires us to deal with complex systems made up of multiple stakeholders. These systems are beyond anyone's control. Systems maps are needed, in addition to org charts. Transactional activity alone will not produce sufficient change to achieve our goals. The quality of of the system's outcomes are a direct reflection of how well the players within the system interact with each other. These projects have a more direct impact on a company's performance as the systems involved determine the kinds of talent and innovation that are readily accessible.
Many business communities are able to organize themselves around the first kind of projects. I believe this is because the leadership skills required is very similar to the leadership required within the business organization. Business leaders are well trained in organizational management, timelines, transactions and hierarchies. Within most businesses it is clear who is in charge, how the organization works and what is needed to get the job done. Physical development projects have the same kind of clarity.

Most of us (whether we work in the public, private or nonprofit arenas) aren't nearly as comfortable working within systems beyond our control. We are trained in the linear world of complicated systems much more than the emergent world of complex systems. And most of all we don't like being dependent on others. The skills needed to lead in such environments are dramatically different from the skills needed within a business.

Business leaders can develop the skills to lead in complex systems -- indeed there are many complex systems within the business world that require different leadership skills. But generally speaking, business leaders are more comfortable leading a transaction than they are leading through complexity.

We know that to achieve sustained, positive community change we must deal with complex issues that shape our economic competitiveness. To achieve that change, we must help our business leaders (as well as other civic leaders) develop the skills required to lead in complex systems.