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.