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.


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