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.