Saturday, April 9, 2016

On Unnatural Acts

A decade ago the Council on Competitiveness aptly described cross-sector collaboration as an "unnatural act among non-consenting adults. Rarely do I give a presentation without using that line and it always draws a knowing laugh from the audience.

It is a dead-on assessment, but why?

The non-consenting part is actually kind of easy to grasp. Collaboration requires us to work with others. Most of us would prefer to be in control of our own destiny so it's understandable that we are reluctant to join in on a process that we cannot control. Cross-sector collaboration requires all of us to leave our egos and our logos at the door. Because we each work for an organization that pays our bills (and is likely a source of great personal pride) we are not eager to leave either behind. We can overcome our reluctance if we truly value the potential outcome of the collaboration -- the enduring positive change. But even if we consent, collaboration remains unnatural.

More accurately, I would say that we've been trained so that collaboration is unnatural. Anthropologists and others have highlighted that humans evolved as a species because of our ability to collaborate. I'm not nearly skilled enough as a social scientist to fully understand why such a fundamental skill to the health of our species is now unnatural, but I believe one reason is that we have developed other skills; those required to form organizations. We form organizations to more efficiently and effectively achieve goals. Organizational skills -- the ability to build clearly defined structures with rule, procedures and clear lines of authority -- have become the dominant skills within our modern societies. Nearly all of us work of an organization (one could argue even the self-employed work for an organization of one). Every organization has its own org chart. And we learn how to navigate org charts from the first grade (class seating charts) through the rest of our academic life.

Those that aspire for leadership positions take courses in organizational leadership. Effective organizational leaders learn all of the tricks of exercising power and influence within the clearly defined structures of the organization. And organizational leaders are required to focus on the long-term health of their organization.

In contrast, there is no organizational chart to guide cross-sector collaboration. The best we can hope for is a systems map that identifies the relationships among the diverse stakeholders within a complex civic system. And the focus of systems leaders is the outcomes of the entire system, not just one organization. Rare is the organizational leader who is also well versed in complexity and systems leadership described by Peter Senge in the Fifth Discipline.

Organizational skills are critical in environments where outcomes can be controlled by a single entity, or even a small group of entities. But in environments roiled by rapid, disruptive change organizations are less likely to be able to keep pace or stay in control (examples range from Apple's efforts to stay ahead of hackers and the military's ability to contain non-state threats). In such evolving environments, adaptive networks are much more effective at taking advantage of the altered landscapes. Such networks demand collaboration. As the pace of change continues to accelerate, those that succeed will be those that aren't confined by their organizations.

And just maybe collaboration will become natural again.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Searching for Galvanizing Leadership

"Zero leadership."

"Business leaders have done squat on this issue."

"They're too important to lead."

Over the last week three normally optimistic leaders I know vented similar frustrations. The leaders are from different communities. They were talking about different issues. But their concerns were the same. They know that achieving systemic change demands galvanizing leadership -- the kind of leadership that can unite diverse stakeholders from different sectors to work together to achieve a shared goal. They are frustrated that such leadership is in such short supply. While they each are leaders, they recognized that they weren't in a position themselves to exercise such leadership. Each would be seen as self-serving if they pushed too hard for change.

What made them more frustrated was that other leaders in their respective communities -- leaders who are in a position to exercise galvanizing leadership -- were more than willing to complain about the issue that each were trying to address. They just weren't willing to take the risk of leading.

As Heifetz and Linsky make clear in Leadership on the Line, leadership is risky business. And "galvanizing leadership" is particularly risky as it requires organizational leaders to lead well beyond the walls of their own organization and bring other leaders to the table.

Organizational leaders are very familiar with what it takes to effectively lead within an organization. Many such leaders aren't accustomed to exercising leadership beyond their organization's boundaries, particularly within complex civic systems that lack clear lines of authority and established rules and procedures.

Organizational leaders can be made more comfortable with the risks of exercising galvanizing leadership if they have a better understanding of how change can be achieved within complex civic systems. Yes, achieving such change requires different leadership styles and skills, but many organizational leaders can make the transition. After all, they were smart enough to figure out how to lead within an organization.

Some leaders need to know that the risks of exercising galvanizing leadership have been reduced before taking on the challenging of uniting diverse stakeholders. The risks can be reduced in a few ways, and philanthropy is well positioned to help reduce those risks.

Funders can help reduce the risk of exercising galvanizing leadership by assuring leaders that they are prepared to support a collaboration process if the leader is able to galvanize enough commitments from other stakeholders. They can reduce the risk even more by making multi-year commitments, recognizing that cross-sector collaboration is never a short process.

And the heads of foundations can choose to join with other organizational leaders to exercise galvanizing leadership. There is strength in numbers. Two or three leaders exercising galvanizing leadership is much less risky than asking one leader to go out on stage alone.

Philanthropic leaders have the greatest freedom to choose to exercise galvanizing leadership. Leaders from other sectors have significant organizational/institutional constraints that can limit their ability to cross boundaries and engage others. Philanthropic leaders face few such constraints and often have the kind of credibility and trust that is necessary to help persuade others that the time is right to collaborate to achieve change.

Those of us who find ourselves searching for more galvanizing leadership should probably spend less time looking and more time trying to figure out how we can lower the risk so that organizational leaders are willing to take on the challenge.