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.

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