Saturday, November 14, 2015

3 Reasons Not to Collaborate

Despite the never-ending hype around the value of cross-sector collaboration, the truth is, as Lori Bartczak notes in "Building Collaboration," a new report issued by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, "Collaboration may not always be the best strategy."

When doesn't collaboration make sense?

1. When stakeholders complain about an issue, but aren't prepared to change. Collaboration requires everyone involved to change how they operate. If stakeholders don't agree to change how they engage with others, how they measure success and how they allocate resources then any attempt to foster collaboration will fail to rise above the all-too-common world of "coblaboration."

2. When the right kind of leadership is lacking. Galvanizing leadership -- the kind of leadership that inspires us to break out of our silos and assume shared responsibility for a common goal -- is necessary for a collaboration to survive the unavoidable rough spots that are inherent in the collaborative process. If the recognized leaders use "command and control" techniques and/or you cannot identify people who are prepared to exercise galvanizing leadership then your collaboration probably won't get past the first few traps. It is possible to engage individuals and help them see the need for exercising galvanizing leadership. That work should be done long before you try to launch your collaboration.

3. When the organizations you will be collaborating with don't even aspire to be high performers. We need to acknowledge that too many organizations within the complex systems we are striving to improve aren't operating at a high level. If they were it is less likely that you'd be pushing for systems change. Mario Morino and other Leap of Reason advocates have identified seven pillars of high performing organizations. Mario is fond of reminding me that collaboration can be a fool's errand because it all but requires harmonic convergence. I guess I'm more optimistic than that, but experience has taught me and the Fund for Our Economic Future that if you ask a handful of average organizations to collaborate you can guarantee a failed collaboration. Collaboration is hard work. Before pursuing a collaboration with others, make sure your organization and others are up to doing great work, or at least aspire to it.

There are more reasons not to collaborate than to do so. But if you want to achieve enduring, positive change within your community you will have to collaborate. Just don't assume your community is ready for it. You can help get them ready helping key stakeholders see the compelling cause that must be addressed (not just complained about); supporting those who have the ability to exercise galvanizing leadership (and by discouraging the command and control leadership style); and by promoting the performance imperative. Yes, the work involved in getting your community in a position where collaboration is possible can be just as demanding as the collaboration process itself.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Systems and Networks - They're Not the Same

I'm a word snob. I like words to mean what I think they mean. And I go a little nuts when others interchange words with that mean different things -- at least according to me.

For example: "Systems" and "Networks."

These words are often treated as similes but in the context of complexity they are distinctly different -- at least according to me.

Systems exist. Networks are built.

Systems -- caused by the interactions of independent players -- come in many shapes and sizes whether one is discussing natural systems (such as ecosystems) or civic systems (such as a public health system). We may not like how the players within a system interact -- causing chaos like mudslides or epidemics. But the system exists. I frequently hear people say something like: "We need to create a workforce development system." Or worse, "Our workforce network needs to work more like a system."

If I could edit these people they'd say something like: "Our system is producing lousy outcomes. We need to build a network within the system that is effective enough to alter the system's outcomes."

Networks are built by players within a system that agree to assume shared responsibility to achieve common goals. They embrace rules of interaction that build trust, expand and strengthen connections and create enduring positive positive change. We call such behavior collaboration.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Developing Our Collaboration Muscles

A recent report by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations emphasizes the need for leaders to develop their “collaboration muscles” to achieve enduring positive change within the complex civic systems that make up our communities. But what are those muscles and how can we develop them?

I've been fortunate to work with two colleagues Mark Scheffler, president of Leadership Akron, and Marcy Levy Shankman, director of Leadership Cleveland, we have identified three muscles, or more accurately collaborative leadership skills that are essential to effective cross-sector collaboration.

The three skills are:
  • Assess Context Before they can catalyze systems change, civic leaders must recognize that they are operating within a complex civic system. Change occurs differently within complex systems than it does within organizations. Collaborative leaders engage with others to explore whether stakeholders recognize the need for systemic change, can agree on shared goals and are willing to assume shared responsibility to achieve those goals.
  • Practice Inquiry – Collaborative leaders need to understand the motivations and priorities of other stakeholders within the system. Such understanding can be achieved by exercising inquiry skills, especially the skill of asking compelling questions. Compelling questions prompt conversations that help us improve our decision-making, create learning opportunities, direct our focus, engage others, influence our thinking and ultimately build trust among stakeholders.
  • Build Trust – The absence of clear lines of authority within complex systems increases the value of trust among the stakeholders that make up the system. We are more willing to invest time, talent and treasure with those that we trust. That is why our collaborations move at the speed of trust. Collaborative civic leaders use their inquiry skills to understand what it will take for stakeholders to develop more trust with each other. They also adopt behaviors that build trust.
We have developed workshop exercises that help leaders better understand and develop these three critical skills. The exercises are designed to help leaders share their experiences, learn from others and explore specific activities that they can take to improve their capacity to practice collaborative civic leadership.

We will be presenting the workshop at GEO's Collaboration Conference in Houston next week.

Through our workshops leaders have developed a better understanding of context of the wicked, persistent challenges facing their communities, they have developed their ability to use inquiry to help others identify opportunities for change and they have developed techniques to build trust with other stakeholders. We have been fortunate enough to work with and watch leaders put these lessons into practice within such complex systems as health care, education, workforce, economic development, food security and the arts.

We have taken the lessons learned from these leaders – their victories and their struggles – to refine and enhance our workshops.

These skills can be learned; these muscles can be developed. Our leaders can use them to create the conditions and capacity for collaboration. And our communities can thrive.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Power and Collaboration

I recently had the chance to help the volunteers supporting the Summit Food Policy Coalition explore what it takes to create sustained positive change within the complex local food system. As we explored the challenge of moving from the all-too-common world of coblaboration (where stakeholders just talk about, rather than catalyze, change) to cross-sector civic collaboration, Beth Vild, a community organizer and local food advocate, made the simple but elegant observation that collaboration is about exercising power with others rather than exercising power over others.

Beth's insight came as I'm reading The End of Power by Moises Naim, a fascinating examination of how global trends are making it harder for large institutions in government, business, religion, philanthropy and other sectors to retain power, and why smaller "micro powers" that are emerging as a result of those same trends also struggle with the rapid erosion of their power.

One of Naim's observations is that as power decays, so do the structures and organizations that help organize our communities (think Congress). Some may see this decay of power as a boon to collaboration. But this decay not only hurts an organization's ability to exercise power over others, it also limits their ability to collaborate (exercise power with others). Effective cross-sector collaboration is demanding work and organizations suffering decline struggle to allocate resources to collaborative efforts.

The antidote to the decay of power is leadership. While we often associate leadership and power, we need to separate these two concepts if we are to achieve change. Some of the most effective collaborative leaders lack any positional power and authority. They acknowledge this reality and instead take actions that build sufficient trust among diverse stakeholders so that they assume shared responsibility for achieving a common goal.

Collaborative leadership builds power. The power to achieve change with others.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

We Need More Climate Change

Our communities are in desperate need of climate change. Not the kind caused by greenhouse gasses, but the kind that makes it easier for cross-sector collaboration to occur.

More often than we'd like, the climate is too frigid for cross-sector collaboration. Too many organizations have developed turf protection as their core competency and refuse to engage with others to explore what change could be achieved by adopting and pursuing common goals. Large organizations accustomed to control can be reluctant to engage in a process that is rooted in the awareness that no single organization can control the outcomes within the complex systems that make up our communities. Organizations facing financial challenges simply don't have the resources or capacity to engage in the difficult, challenging work that is cross-sector collaboration. Other organizations may be content to declare programmatic success and ignore the systemic challenges that remain. And some organizations have no interest at all in assuming shared responsibility for addressing complex challenges and opportunities.

In such a climate, cross-sector collaboration isn't possible.

Sometimes the climate for collaboration can be over-heated. This occurs when a large funder (often-times the federal government) offers the promise of a large grant in exchange for a organizations agreeing to collaborate on a project. Such offers can set off a frenzy of collaborations. But the motivation for the collaborative spirit is access to cash, not a commitment to sustained positive change. Once the money runs out the collaboration dies.

Those who recognize that the climate isn't right for cross-sector collaboration need to exercise leadership that leads to climate change. The first step is to understand the root causes of the current climate. One cause of a frigid climate for collaboration is a lack of shared understanding of the need for change. For example, a researcher asked me the other day if there was broad awareness within a community about its recent sharp economic decline when compared to its peers. Unfortunately, the answer is "absolutely not." And the reason is simple. No one in the community measures economic performance. No measurement. No awareness. Civic leaders that want to catalyze change need to build shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing our communities.

Another cause for a frigid climate is a lack of trust among stakeholders. Cross-sector collaboration requires organizations to assume shared responsibility for achieving a common goal. No one is eager to share responsibility with someone they don't trust. Civic leaders that want to catalyze change meet one-on-one with other stakeholders to better understand their respective priorities and motives and they work with others to create safe spaces where tough issues can be sorted through. Collaboration moves at the speed of trust. Trust can be built. Building trust is fundamental skill for those that want to exercise collaborative civic leadership.

Increasing shared understanding and building trust are two ways to begin to change the climate and make cross-sector collaboration possible in our communities.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Complex Systems and Leadership

Increasingly my day job provides me with opportunities to share lessons in collaborative civic leadership and the art of cross-sector collaboration.

Recently my colleague Sara Lepro helped with two blog posts published on the web site of the Fund for Our Economic Future.

Complex Civic Systems, Collaboration & Leadership
Building Collaborative Leadership Skills: A Primer

The posts are taken from a brief paper I wrote to help different groups do some "advance reading" before I gave a presentation or a workshop on collaboration. I hope you find them helpful, as well.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Trying to Define Civic Collaboration

Collaboration is everywhere.

Just in the last 24 hours, according to Google, we’ve been told that everyone from the Air Force to Kanye West, is working on a collaboration, and collaboration shapes everything from the quality of teaching to well-being in the workplace. Suffice to say, there’s a whole lot of collaboration going on.

But what is collaboration exactly? In my years of working to help others to collaborate, I've found that "coblaboration" is much more common than collaboration. And nearly everyone's definition of collaboration is somewhat different, in part because there are many different kinds of collaboration. I'd like to take a shot at defining a specific type of collaboration; the type that is required to bring sustained positive change to the complex civic systems that make up our communities. I call this kind of collaboration "civic collaboration."

My definition is full of terms that themselves need to be defined. Here's my latest shot at it. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Civic Collaboration: A process used by diverse stakeholders from multiple sectors within a civic system to develop and sustain a high-performing network able to identify and achieve shared goals by assuming shared responsibility for aligning resources, coordinating actions, measuring progress and adapting.

Process: A structured series of functions and activities that enable stakeholders to develop a shared understanding of what is possible and a framework that helps to collectively pursue shared goals.

Stakeholders: Organizations, entities and individuals that shape the performance and outcomes within a civic system, including funders, governmental entities, residents, businesses and nonprofits.

Sectors: Defined segments of our communities, examples include the public sector, private sector, nonprofit sector and philanthropic sector.

Civic Systems: A set of independent, interconnected stakeholders that through their performance and their interactions influence key outcomes within our communities.  Civic systems cannot be controlled by any single or small group of entities.

High-performing Network: An interdependent web created when independent stakeholders within a civic system agree to a shared set of performance standards, rules of interaction and goals, and agree to assume shared responsibility for achieving those goals.

Shared Goals: Outcomes that independent stakeholders agree to pursue together.

Shared Responsibility: Independent stakeholders assume a portion of the responsibility for achieving shared goals. Stakeholders can articulate the specific actions that they will perform to fulfill their shared responsibility.

Resources: Financial, human and physical capital that is deployed to support individual or collective actions by stakeholders.

Actions: The programs, projects and initiatives undertaken by stakeholders, either acting individually or with others, that are designed to achieve specific outcomes, including achieving the shared goals identified by the high-performing network.

Measuring Goals: Stakeholders agree to set of metrics that will used to measure progress toward the shared goals.

Adapt: Stakeholders in high-performing networks use metrics to better understand the performance and outcomes of the system and adapt so that their actions result in improved performance and outcomes.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Why So Many Orgs?

Our communities all have two things:

  • An abundance of wicked, persistent challenges.
  • A number of non-profit organizations formed with the intent of addressing those challenges.
A cynic -- I used to be one, so I should know -- says that the employees of organizations don't want to put themselves out of a job and that is why the challenges persist. But if you spend any time at all with leaders (both staff and boards) of non-profit organizations you know that the vast majority devote their lives to the challenges. Most could make much more money (if that is what motivates them) doing something else in the for-profit world. To suggest that they care more for themselves than for their cause is simply wrong and offensive.

Yet, the paradox and the challenges persist. Why?

Increasingly I believe it is a reflection of how we try to make sense of our environment. Karl Weick said we are inclined to insert vestiges of orderliness to make sense of our lives. And organizations create a sense of orderliness. Organizations have mission statements and organizational charts that assure us that they are able address the challenge at hand.

In communities with significant resources, the ability to create organizations to address challenges appears limitless. There are now more than 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States, and sometimes it seems there are that many in the philanthropy-rich region where I work.

High-performing organizations can indeed address complicated challenges facing our communities. But the wicked, persistent challenges are complex -- that is their solutions emerge not from an organization but from the interactions of many organizations, individuals and institutions that make up the complex system that is at the heart of the challenge.

We can create all the organizations we want to improve educational outcomes, for example, but ultimately educational outcomes at the community level are determined by how well all of those organizations, and so many others that make up our "education system," interact with each other.

Why do we keep creating organizations to address complex challenges? I believe it is because we do what we know. We are taught by organizations. We work for organizations. We are all familiar with organizational charts; we encounter them in first grade and many of us cannot go to bed at night without knowing where we are on the chart. Funders work in organizations, too. Ideally, they want to know the outcome before the check is written and organizational charts and linear logic models all help.

But as the great Kathy Merchant, former head of the Cincinnati Foundation, so wisely puts it: "If you're looking for linear, find a new line of work." Bringing change to complex systems is anything but linear.

But we are all trained in linear. I had a biology teacher in high school who tried to introduce me to complexity (by having us read Aldo Leopold) and it wasn't until just a few years ago that I realized what he was talking about. And while I can be more obtuse than most, I don't think I ever really encountered complexity again throughout my schooling and my professional career until a mentor helped me understand its relevance to my work in regional economic development. When I speak to leaders I often ask how many are comfortable with complexity. Rarely do more than a few in a large crowd raise their hand.

This is why we keep creating organizations. It's what we know. If we understood complexity better -- and understood how the organizations we created our part of complex systems -- then we'd spend more time creating the capacity to understand how our systems perform and why, and less time creating new organizations unable to address the challenges they were created to solve.



Thursday, May 7, 2015

On Reorgs and Spaceships

There are two common (and commonly ineffective) approaches civic leaders use to address persistent challenges within their communities.

The first approach is to reorganize the institution that is deemed to be to blame. Superintendents of urban school districts are very familiar with this phenomenon as they've watch one wave of reorganization after another wash over their districts. Rarely is a school reorg tied to a community effort to eliminate economic poverty, even though numerous studies link poverty to poor educational outcomes. Yes, we need high-performing schools (and other civic institutions) as the Leap of Reason movement makes so very clear. But we also know that no single organization can change the outcomes within a complex system. Restructuring a single organization in the absence of systemic change will not result in the outcomes we desire for our communities. But we keep trying.

We also like to try spaceships. "Spaceships" is my term for the practice of transplanting a "successful" program/project/initiative from one community to another.

In the best case scenario, the new initiative is led by an emotionally intelligent leader who is able to adapt to their environment, build relationships, create connections and generate results that make the spaceship a valued part of the system and the community.

Too often, the champions of the new initiative let others in the system know that the spaceship is here to fix what others could not. Existing players cannot be engaged because they are part of the problem. The spaceship must not be infected. These champions are like the aliens from a bad sci-fi movie; here to save the human race from itself. The problem with this spaceship approach to civic change is that spaceships are expensive to keep up. They start off all shiny and new and attract a lot of attention. But over time, the luster wears off, the problems they are trying to address are complex and therefore beyond the control of even the fanciest of spaceships. Eventually the funders of the spaceship tire of footing the entire bill and try to persuade others to embrace and make their spaceship "sustainable." But other funders have their own spaceships to sustain.

This is when the really bad stuff happens. The spaceships agree to a merger and promise all will be well as soon as they finish their reorg.

The Root Cause for Failing to Achieve Change

Recently a civic leader I work with expressed frustration that he's heard the same complaints for years about poor workforce development outcomes in our region and nothing has changed. He correctly observed that before we try to make change happen, we need to understand the root cause for why change hasn't happened to date.

While I originally offered several specific reasons for the persistence of the workforce status quo, upon reflection I believe the real root cause is rather generic. Whether the issue is workforce development, business development, public health, innovation or entrepreneurship, the root cause for the lack of sustained positive change is that these are complex civic systems.

What is a complex civic system and why is it so hard to achieve sustained positive change within such systems?

Complex civic systems are made up of diverse independent stakeholders (organizations, institutions and individuals) from multiple sectors (private, public, nonprofit and philanthropic).

Here are several things that we need to understand about complex civic systems:

  • They are not controlled by any individual entity or even a small group of entities.
  • The outcomes – educational outcomes, business development outcomes, job training outcomes etc. – that emerge from these systems are also beyond any single entity’s control.
  • Complex civic systems exist even when they are not well coordinated. (Both chaos and order can emerge from complex systems.) Often I hear that "there is no system" or "we need to create a system." There is always a system, it just may not function in a way that we would like.)
  • The quality of what emerges from a complex civic system is determined by the quality of the interactions among the players within the system.
  • The boundaries of such systems are unclear, can change and vary widely. Just as in natural systems, civic systems are made up of multiple subsystems and they're all interconnected.
The consequences of poor performance (“the pain”) is diffuse and unevenly felt. For example, the poor performance of a workforce system in a community may mean a large international company needs to expand employment in a different market. While that may be a hardship, the company is able to expand. However, a small employer may not have resources to relocate and will instead struggle to be competitive. And the resident hurt by a poorly performing workforce system likely is neither prepared for a job, nor has access to one.

Within poorly performing civic systems, stakeholders with resources and capacity can influence parts of the system or create workarounds to achieve the desired outcomes. This may improve outcomes for some, but the overall system continues to perform poorly. Stakeholders without resources and capacity have limited influence over any part of the system and struggle to develop workarounds. They also have limited capacity to aggregate their individual interests into a collective voice and/or collective action.

This is the root cause of our frustration.

Civic leaders can catalyze the capacity for the cross-sector collaborations that are necessary to bring change to complex civic systems. The first step is recognizing the root cause of our frustration is that we are dealing with a complex system.

Thank You to Intersector

Last month, the Intersector Project was kind enough to post an article I wrote for them about valuable role that public sector officials can play to catalyze cross-sector collaborations.

I've been tracking the Intersector Project for awhile. Its four-step process for supporting cross-sector collaboration will be familiar to those who follow the work of the Collective Impact Forum, Bridgespan and others.

It is encouraging to see more energy and effort going into helping stakeholders develop systemic approaches to addressing the wicked, persistent challenges within their communities.

While I believe that philanthropy has the most freedom to catalyze cross-sector collaborations that target systemic change, clearly the private and public sectors can do the same. I am fortunate to work with public leaders willing to do just that in Summit County, Ohio. And I'm very thankful that Intersector was willing to help me highlight their leadership to a global audience.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Coblaboration Test

I've written before about how many cross-sector efforts remain stuck in "coblaboration" and rarely move to collaboration. The following chart highlights the difference between the two.

 Collaboration for Collective Impact
Focused on assigning blame or taking credit
Focused on outcomes
Stakeholders participate to protect
Stakeholders participate to generate value
Opinions rule
Data is king
Talk exceeds action
Actions emerge from engagement
Informal process
Intentional, rigorous process

While "coblaboration" is a made up word, I've never had to explain it to anyone working in the civic sector. Everyone is all to familiar with the frustrations of coblabloration; even though they may not have had a word to describe it. As I've worked with more and more collaborations, I've begun to develop a set of multiple-choice questions that stakeholders can take to assess whether they're stuck in coblaboration-mode or whether they are moving to collaboration.

Leaders of collaborations should ask the participants to take and share such a self-assessment on a consistent basis to surface key issues that hinder a collaboration's progress.

1. I participate in this collaboration:
a.) To protect myself or my organization's interests
b.) I'm not sure why
c.) Because it creates value for me and/or my organization

2. When it comes to other participants in this collaboration:
a.) I am suspicious of their motives and priorities.
b.) I am unclear of their motives and priorities.
c.) I understand their motives and priorities.

3. My level of trust with other participants is:
a.) Non-existent
b.) Low
c.) Moderate
d.) Strong

4. My level of trust with other participants is:
a.) Declining
b.) Staying the same
c.) Growing

5. Our collaboration has a regular meeting schedule:
a.) Yes
b.) No
c.) I don't know

6. Our meetings are:
a.) Like Ground Hog Day, the same thing over and over
b.) Inconsistent
c.) Helpful
d.) Very Helpful

7. Our collaboration's communications are:
a.) Rare
b.) Sporadic
c.) Consistent

8. Our collaboration's communications are:
a.) Unclear and unhelpful
b.) Somewhat helpful
c.) Very helpful

9. Participants in our collaboration are focused on:
a.) Assigning blame
b.) Taking credit
c.) Achieving change
d.) Not sure yet

10. Data from our collaboration:
a.) Isn't available
b.) Is available, but irrelevant
c.) Is relevant but rarely used
d.) Is occasionally used
e.) Regularly informs are decision-making

Take the coblaboration test. What do your answers tell you about the health of your collaboration?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Organizational Leaders and Civic Change

A powerful recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review highlighted two truths known by anyone works in the civic arena:

  • Sustained positive change requires cross-sector collaboration.
  • Most collaborations fail because of a lack of leadership.
The authors make a compelling case that we need more "systems leaders" able to navigate the harrowing waters inherent within the complex, messy systems that make up our respective communities. The authors highlight the difficulty of being a systems leader, and offer insight on the core capabilities that systems leadership requires.

Implicit in the article was something that I believe needs to be explicit: Organizational leaders need to know that systems leadership is distinct from organizational leadership. Nearly every leader I know began their leadership journey as part of an organization. By the time the organizational leader is tapped by others or decides on their own to engage in the civic arena they are well versed and skilled at using organizational structures, lines of authority and established processes to catalyze change.

The problem is that within the civic arena those structures, lines and processes are either blurry or non-existent. The civic arena is all about complex systems. When dealing with education, workforce, food security, public safety, economic development, public health etc. we are dealing with systems that consist of multiple, diverse stakeholders who operate independent of each other; and there is an absence of control.

The complexity of civic systems demands the kind of systems leadership described in the article.

The first step to making the transition from leading within an organization to leading within a complex civic system is recognizing that a transition is required.

Funder Collaborations and Layer Cakes

Earlier this month I wrote about an interesting exercise that resulted in a long list of things that funders can do to guarantee the worst possible results from a funder collaborative.

The final part of the exercise -- which was facilitated by Robert Albright of FSG and the Collective Impact Forum -- was much more positive in nature. We were asked to illustrate what a well functioning funder collaborative looks like.

The group I was in came up with a rather esoteric illustration (probably because I volunteered to draw). But Ken Thompson of the Gates Foundation and his group came up with the wonderful drawing/analogy of how funder collaboratives need to be like a three-layer cake.

I wrote about that recently on the blog for my day job at the Fund for Our Economic Future. I hope you will check it out.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

How Funders Can Guarantee Coblaboration

What should a a foundation do to guarantee the worst possible result from a collaboration they are working on?

While that might sound like a ridiculous question, it actually proved to be quite helpful when Robert Allbright of FSG posed it to a group of funders participating in workshop on sustaining successful funder collaboratives. (The workshop was part of the Collective Impact Forum.) Using a problem solving technique called TRIZ, which was new to all of the participants, Robert asked us to come up with a list of all of the things we could do as funders to make sure we achieved the worst result possible result -- which I call "coblaboration."

Here's a partial list of the behaviors we came up with:

  • Assume you know what needs to be done.
  • Control the process.
  • Limit engagement.
  • Gather input and then ignore it.
  • Don't communicate.
  • Be opaque about your motives.
  • Don't measure progress.
  • Reject ideas.
  • Put conditions on your participation.
  • Be unclear as to how decisions are made.
  • Refuse to show up.
  • Work at cross-purposes.
  • Favor grantees over outcomes.
  • Have no theory of change.
  • Let your ego and your logo get in the way.
  • Shift focus/priorities regularly.
  • Don't look at the big picture.
  • Be impatient.
  • Be linear.
  • Insist on timelines.
  • Don't invest in planning.
  • Expect huge system outcomes, but don't invest in capacity to coordinate the system.
  • Listen to the loudest voice in the room.
  • Bully others if you can. (Thank you Ken Thompson for this outstanding contribution.) 
As part of the TRIZ exercise, Robert then challenged us to ask, "Is there anything that I am currently doing that resembles these items?" Of course the answer was yes much more than we would like to admit to ourselves, let alone to our peers.

This exercise (and the additional elements to it) helped serve as a reminder that getting foundations to collaborate is very difficult, in part because funders regularly behave in ways that disrupt the collaboration process. The good news is foundations have great freedom to choose how they act. Foundations, for the most part, don't face the constraints that public and corporate funders must deal with. Foundations have more freedom to decide what steps they will take to stop (or at least limit) the behaviors cited above.

Foundations can expect themselves (and their peers) to act in ways that lead to collaboration, rather than behaviors that result in little more than coblaboration.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

3 Levels of Cross-Sector Collaboration

Cross-sector collaboration is required to bring change within the complex, messy civic systems that make up our communities. But what kind of change do we desire?

There are at least three different kinds of change sought by advocates of cross-sector collaboration.

Some advocate for collaboration because they think it is the best way to lower costs. Cost-driven collaboration can be disguised as promoting shared resources and alignment of efforts. You know your collaboration is really about costs when the initial conversations (and the subsequent ones) focus on organizational revenue and expenses rather than outcomes.

Sometimes collaboration is designed to help a community deal with decline. This is similar to the cost-driven collaboration, but it's not just funding that is in decline. Communities that face declines in population, weakening assets (like universities or critical industries), and even decline in civic pride often promote collaboration. Indeed, communities where stakeholders work well together are better able to manage decline. Unfortunately, they can also get stuck managing decline. Communities can only tolerate so much decline before a threshold is crossed and infrastructure collapses. In a worst case scenario, the community becomes a ghost town.

Communities that are stuck managing decline need to find ways to get off the down escalator and start collaborating for growth.

In the most promising level of cross-sector collaboration, stakeholders are able to set a bold goal that shifts the conversation and the expectations about what is possible. The focus is not on "doing more with less" but on being more. Being a more vibrant, healthy and attractive community. This kind of cross-sector collaboration is focused on outcomes. Outcomes that are tied to those bold goals.

While there can be value in the first two levels of cross-sector collaboration, sustained positive change is only possible if we learn how to excel at the third level.  

Wishing for New Year's Resolutions

2015 will be a much more pleasant year if we resolve to redefine two critical words: “regionalism” and “economic development.”

These words are ubiquitous in civic conversations, yet their meanings vary widely depending on both the messenger and the audience. What we think those two terms mean has great influence over what programs we support and the actions we take.

First, regionalism is not about government consolidation. That is called government consolidation. Regionalism is too important to be defined by such a narrow, and relatively insignificant, issue. Our governments are not regional, our economy is. The exchange of goods and services (including labor) is concentrated within a geography (called a region) that extends beyond political boundaries (cities and counties). That our economy is regional requires us to be able to think, plan and act regionally about key priorities that shape a regional economy's competitiveness; issues like talent, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Regionalism also involves strengthening local assets and connecting them to the regional economy. Those assets include our residents, our public infrastructure, our natural assets, our centers of innovation and our businesses. Cities and counties don’t have economies, they have assets. Local leaders should be focused on asset development rather than misusing the term “economic development.”

Much of what is touted as “economic development” does not result in an expanded regional economy. Where is the economic growth in the building of a new shopping center or an office building that simply causes existing structures to be emptied? Such developments may increase a community’s tax base, but that’s called “tax base development” not “economic development.” Jason Segedy, who runs the municipal planning agency in greater Akron, warns that in the absence of population growth our propensity to sprawl is both unprecedented and unsustainable.

A simple definition of economic development has eluded me, but if public and/or philanthropic dollars are to be spent in the name of "economic development," I would hope the funded actions result in both a larger regional economy and increased economic opportunity for residents who are presently disconnected from the economy.

Advancing a growing, opportunity-rich economy requires us to excel at both regionalism and economic development. We should all resolve to agree on what those words mean and what it takes to excel at them.