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.