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.

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