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.

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