Give your collaboration some backbone!

All collaborations need a strong, flexible backbone, holding it all together, channelling communication and letting the interesting bits get on with what they’re really good at.  I first came across the term ‘backbone organisation’ in the work of US organisation FSG, writing about what they call collective impact, but the need for a central team of some sort has been obvious throughout my work on collaboration.   

What is the 'backbone' and what does it do?

Sometimes called secretariat, host or convenor, the role of the central team encompasses three kinds of activity:

  • Helping the collaborators identify and build on common ground, and resolve differences of view (facilitation);
  • Being a secretariat – a point of contact, repository of information and supporting the terms of reference or other governance of the collaboration;
  • Project management or coordination roles in both governance-related activities, and the ‘doing’ of the work of the collaboration- although I have a big caution around this, which is explored below.

Reassuring the collaborators about how collaboration works

The central team also needs to have a keen understanding of how collaboration works, so that they can help the collaborators negotiate the inevitable challenges that arise (see series of posts on six characteristic challenges of collaboration).  They also need to be able to spot when the collaborators are relying on them too much to do the work of the collaboration – which should really be done by the collaborating organisations.  If the collaborating organisations can’t put their own time and resources into the work, then this raises questions about their commitment to the outcomes that the collaboration is seeking to achieve.  Perhaps they haven’t found joint outcomes which are truly compelling, and shouldn’t be collaborating.  The central team can help them spot this warning sign, and reflect on it.

So the central team needs skills which enable them to do a range of things, from top-notch administration to in-the-room facilitation skills and a good dose of assertiveness.

Does the backbone need to know, and care, about the issues?

Do they need technical knowledge about the subject that the collaborators are working on?  Do they need a commitment to the agenda or cause?

There are a couple of ways in which expertise and passion can be a downside.  This may seem a bit heretical, so I’ll explain my thinking.

When a collaboration begins, then the central tasks probably need to be shared among the potential collaborators, and shoe-horned into people’s already busy day jobs.  But very soon there will be more work of the facilitation and secretariat kind than can be easily accommodated in that way.  So dedicated resource is needed.  What might happen next?  Here are some scenarios.

Organisation A is passionate about the potential of the collaboration to meet its own goals, and steps forward to offer that resource.  There’s space in its office, and a staff person is put on the case.  Very soon, all the collaborators begin to see it as Organisation A’s ‘project’.  The staff person’s line manager sees it that way too.  Organisation A becomes too influential in the decision-making, and also sees itself as carrying the other collaborators.  The commitment which led them to step forward is fabulous. But it unbalances the collaboration, which collapses back into being a set of less engaged supporters of Organisation A’s work.

In another collaboration, Organisation B is contracted to provide the central role.  They are answerable to a small mixed board of some kind, and so the decision-making continues to be balanced and shared between collaborators.  But Organisation B was chosen for its technical knowledge, rather than its skills in collaboration.  Perhaps it gave a very keen price for its services, because of its commitment, which added to the attractiveness of its offer.  Organisation B has lots of opinions on what the collaboration should be doing and either wants to influence the content, or becomes too much of a delivery organisation rather than a facilitative organisation.  The collaborators begin to view it as the sole way that the collaboration is ‘doing’ its work, and their own active commitment to using internal resources and expertise in a coordinated way to meet the collaboration’s outcomes begins to fade.  

Organisation C is a purpose-led non-profit with ambitious goals.  It decides to convene a collaboration around one of those goals.  The collaborators who come together agree with the goals, but individually are not so committed or ambitious.  Organisation C finds itself acting either as a facilitator of conversations between the collaborators (but frustrated at its inability to input its own ambitious ideas) or as a challenger and motivator to higher ambition (and therefore agreeing with some collaborators and not others, compromising its ability to facilitate).

Can one of the collaborators be the backbone?

My strong advice would be to avoid this if at all possible.  It is very hard to avoid the pressure from the rest of the organisation to ‘make’ the collaboration do X or Y.  And it’s also very hard to counteract the slide towards it being seen as something other than collaboration. 

Should the backbone have commitment and expertise in the content?

This can work, but there are risks which the collaborators and central team need to be alive to: having all the ‘actions’ dumped into the centre, and getting the balance of challenge vs neutral facilitation right.  Collaborations need both an ‘organic leader’ and an ‘honest broker’.  There’s more on how this might be done in this blog post.

Real-world collaborations

When I was writing Working Collaboratively, I interviewed a few people about this.  Craig Bennett, currently Executive Director of FOE EWNI, told me about his time convening the Corporate Leaders Group.

“If you have more than a small number of parties, then don’t underestimate the value of proper neutral facilitation and a secretariat.”

Whether that third party role should be truly neutral was less clear.  Signe Bruun Jensen of Maersk Line valued the facilitation combined with the challenge and conscience role that Forum for the Future brought to the Sustainable Shipping Initiative:

“You need that challenger role.  If you can find it in a facilitator then great – he or she can help create a sense of urgency and purpose that pushes the process along. I think the real challenge is for the facilitator – whether he or she can balance that potential conflict of interest. That’s why we ultimately decided to split the role in the later stages of the process.”

While you can buy in a neutral facilitator (if you have the resource to do so), you cannot invent a trusted, powerful ‘organic’ leader - who has credibility among the collaborators, understands the subject and has ambition for transformative solutions - if they are not already in the system.

You may be such a person, or you may need to get such a person on board. 

Jonathon Porritt, Founder Director of Forum for the Future, has been involved in catalysing many collaborative initiatives, including the Sustainable Shipping Initiative.  He said:

“You have to be able to get the right people into the room at some stage. If you don’t have that ability yourself you have to find someone who has.”

So you need that ambitious, challenging, exciting expertise. Heart, guts, brain. And you need, separately, your backbone.