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What might change, when an organisation changes?

What might change, when an organisation changes?

When you think about the changes you want to bring about, to make your organisation or sector more sustainable, what do you see changing? Do you have blind spots about where change might happen, and how deep or how obvious it will be?
 
Edgar Schein’s Three Levels of Culture model is a great way of understanding what might change, as an organisation or other entity changes. It’s useful to think very widely about the kinds of things that might change – or need to change – to get us on track for sustainable development.

Managing the change to sustainability

Managing the change to sustainability

Croner-i’s “Environment” magazine asked me to share key insights from Change Management for Sustainable Development. That article is out now, in the spring edition (no. 74).

 You can download it here.

 Tldr:

  • Understand where your organisation is now…

Peace, justice, partnerships and a strategic approach - 7/7 on business and the Sustainable Development Goals

Photo: Flags and goals, Liu Bolin. For more SDG images see the  UN's media centre .

Photo: Flags and goals, Liu Bolin. For more SDG images see the UN's media centre.

Now that the Sustainable Development Goals (Global Goals) have had a chance to bed down, how are companies responding to them?  And what about the rather nebulous enabling goals 16 and 17 on peace, justice, strong institutions and partnership: how can businesses translate these into action? 

The seventh and final piece in my series on the SDGs, written for The Environmentalist magazine, is out now.  See it on their website here, or read the pdf version.

What makes a great partnership?

This series has featured many collaborations and partnerships.  Some, like the UN Global Compact, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development or the UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development network, are for business and other players across the sustainability spectrum.  Others focus on specific issues or sectors, like the Sustainable Shipping Initiative, the Corporate Leaders Group (which is about climate change) and the C40 network of cities.

This kind of joint working can be disappointing, if clear shared goals and skilful convening are lacking. 

It’s also important to understand that there is a spectrum of collaborative working, from sharing information, coordination and cooperation through one-off collaborative projects and mainstream work delivered jointly right up to collaboration being the new business-as-usual.  Potential collaborators need to listen to each other’s assumptions about how they expect to work together, as well as what they want to achieve.

This spectrum, and other useful frameworks and tips, are explored in my book “Working Collaboratively: a practical guide to achieving more”. 

Strategic responses to the goals as a whole

In exploring what businesses are doing to respond the Sustainable Development Goals as a whole, I have found different approaches being used.

Some, like Acciona the Spanish renewables and infrastructure company, are using them to focus their corporate volunteering.

Cemex, BT and Samsung are among companies which are highlighting links to specific goals in their sustainability reporting.  GRI has mapped the SDGs against its reporting frameworks.

Many are using the SDGs to augment their materiality analysis.  Global consultancy firm PwC has developed a sophisticated and detailed tool which helps clients take their first steps in engaging with the goals.  Louise Scott who helped develop the Navigator tool, said

“Our detailed country-by-country research has helped companies spot things they didn’t realise were important, and catalysed conversations, grounded in geography, about where they can have the most impact.”

Novozymes is using the SDGs as part of filtering and prioritising in its innovation pipeline.  The company has gone further, linking its Executive Leadership Team’s bonus scheme to annual operational targets, derived in part from the SDGs.

Make some noise

DNV GL, the Norwegian-based multi-service assurance, standards and advisory business, is among those business services suppliers who are making some noise about the SDGs.  Bjørn Haugland is their Chief Sustainability Officer, and through his substantial twitter following and DNV’s publications he is spreading the word to businesses and helping shape the business response.

Influencing government action

Business has a powerful voice and can choose to use it to support, or undermine, robust government action in favour of sustainable development.  This is particularly important when it comes to policy coherence, which is targeted in Goal 17.

BT is part of the We Mean Business coalition – thousands of influential businesses and business groups working to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy.  Over 120 coalition member companies have signed up to a commitment to responsible corporate engagement on climate change, promising to audit their activity, ensuring consistency and disclosing positions, actions and outcomes.

Across the suite of SDGs, Steve Kenzie Executive Director of the UN Global Compact in the UK, thinks companies should be “holding the Government’s feet to the fire”.

First, do no harm

Expert after expert told me that companies need to look hardest at where they may be – albeit inadvertently – undermining the SDGs.  Ruth Mhlanga, Oxfam’s Private Sector Policy Advisor, stressed

“It’s not just about opportunities, it’s also about responsible conduct and impact.  Don’t undermine one goal while tackling another.  Sustainability leaders will include those who support government efforts to govern for the common good and are willing to stand up to peers who undermine those collective efforts.” 

Collaborate to shift the system

Picking off the goals and targets which seem easiest could be a mistaken strategy, if the actions you take involve trading off progress on one front with undermining it on another.  In its research into the interconnections between the SDGs, The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) highlights an area ripe with what it calls ‘wicked trade-offs’: environmental protection versus reducing food prices.  IIASA found that the most effective win-win would be to reduce the proportion of meat in Western diets.

Oxfam’s Mhlanga also advocates collaborative, system-level action. 

“On issues like freedom of association, single companies can’t fix the problem alone.  Oxfam’s work on labour rights in Vietnam, for example, illustrated that unilateral action is insufficient because the issues are systemic across an industry.  But where companies, governments and civil society work together, making issues like suppliers paying a living wage precompetitive, then no one company is disadvantaged by competitors undercutting.”  

The Business and Sustainable Development Commission’s report "Better Business, Better World" was clear on the need for system-level change:

“ ‘Business as usual’ will not achieve this market transformation. Nor will disruptive innovation by a few sustainable pioneers be enough to drive the shift: the whole sector has to move. Forward-looking business leaders are working with sector peers and stakeholders to map their collective route to a sustainable competitive playing field.”

Stephanie Draper is Forum for the Future’s Deputy Chief Executive.  Looking at progress since the SDGs were announced, Draper said

“Successfully delivering the SDGs requires a really strong systems approach.  That means operating on three levels – joining up with others’ efforts to achieve individual goals; looking at the inter-relationships between all the goals, and delivering the goals in a way that models the characteristics we need for a sustainable society.”

Which brings us back to Goals 16 and 17, with their call for inclusion, participation and collaboration.

‘If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’

We need to go far. And we need to go quickly. So we’d better figure out how we’re going to do both.

Seven and out

You can read the series on The Environmentalist's website (IEMA login, subscription or free trial) or on my blog.

Work, growth, innovation and equality - Sustainable Development Goals and business

Stonewall and P&G's work to promote equality for LGBT staff in Spain, Rype Office's repurposed office furniture for Public Health Wales, Willmott Dixon Interiors working with the Amber Foundation to help vulnerable youngsters into work... These are just some of the businesses featured in part six of my seven part series for The Environmentalist on how business can help support the SDGs.

Credit: Nicki Priem.   Mafikizolo raised a flag to represent Goal 8, Decent Work and Economic Growth, at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, South Africa, to support the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development.

Learn more...

You can read the article in its proper home, The Environmentalist magazine here, if you are an IEMA member or a subscriber.  Or if you sign up for a free trial. 

If that all sounds like too many clicks, there's a pdf of it here.

 

 

 

Clean energy, thriving cities: Sustainable Development Goals #5

Qiciao and Qixi, a pair of giant panda twins, inspect a flag to represent Goal 7, Affordable and Clean Energy, raised at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China, to support the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Credit: Mr. Yuan Tao and Ms. Yan Lu

Qiciao and Qixi, a pair of giant panda twins, inspect a flag to represent Goal 7, Affordable and Clean Energy, raised at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China, to support the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Credit: Mr. Yuan Tao and Ms. Yan Lu

Bringing affordable off-grid renewables to remote communities in developing countries; using cutting-edge data analysis to save money and carbon in modern buildings; micro-managing students' energy use to balance the national grid: some of the brilliant things that are featured in the latest of my series on how businesses are helping contribute to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals

This article in The Environmentalist also looks at making cities more sustainable: better buildings, convenient and reliable public transport and new technology which helps blind and partially sighted people navigate and enjoy the neighbourhood.

You can read it online here (IEMA login or subscription, or take a free trial) or there's a pdf version here.

Sweet like chocolate - protecting Earth's life support systems

In the fourth of my series on business and the Sustainable Development Goals, I found out about how Nestle and Mondelez are working to secure their long-term supply of cocoa,  about how companies are calling for greater action on carbon emissions and how the pension fund of England's environment regulator is divesting from fossil fuels.  This part of the series looks at Goal 13 Climate Action and Goal 15 Life on Land.

You can see the article over at The Environmentalist's website here.  Login if you are a subscriber or an IEMA member, or register for a free trial.  If that's not for you, the pdf is here.

Explorer Inge Solheim raised a flag representing Goal 13, Climate Action, in the community closest to the North Pole, to support the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Image c/o  Global Goals media centre .

Explorer Inge Solheim raised a flag representing Goal 13, Climate Action, in the community closest to the North Pole, to support the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Image c/o Global Goals media centre.

Fresh water, salty water and sustainable resource use - business and the Sustainable Development Goals #3

Free diving world champion Umberto Pelizzari, raised a flag to represent Goal 14, Life Below Water, off the coast of Formentera, to support the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Credit: Enric Sala. http://www.globalgoals.org/media-centre/

Free diving world champion Umberto Pelizzari, raised a flag to represent Goal 14, Life Below Water, off the coast of Formentera, to support the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Credit: Enric Sala. http://www.globalgoals.org/media-centre/

In the third of my series on what business can do to support the Sustainable Development Goals, published in The Environmentalist, I look at goals 6 clean water and sanitation; 14 life below water and 12 responsible consumption and production.

I found lots of interesting action - most of which predates the SDGs - and was able to squeeze in impressive strides in reducing water use by Levi Strauss, Maersk Group starting to shift the entire ship breaking sector through its work in India and some head-to-head competition between Tesco and Sainsbury's on reducing food waste.  And much more...

You can read the article in its rightful home on The Environmentalist's site here, or if you're not an IEMA member or a subscriber you can download a pdf here.

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.

 

 

 

A global purpose: the Sustainable Development Goals and business #2

Business can help society meet the Sustainable Development Goals (aka Global Goals). Find out more about work on hunger, health and quality education.

Thanks to the lovely people at IEMA's The Environmentalist magazine, for the invitation to write this series on business response to the SDGs.  It's given me a reason to talk to lots of people doing important work inside lots of businesses and NGOs.

The second article is now out (May 2016), and it covers goals 2, 3 and 4:

You can access the article, and plenty of other environmental news, here, either sign in with your IEMA login, subscribe or take a free trial.

Alternatively, there's a pdf of it here.   The first article in the series, giving an introduction to the SDGs and looking at Goal 1 (poverty) and Goal 5 (Gender) is here.

 

Sustainable Development Goals - what do they mean for your business?

In September 2015, the United Nations agreed a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals.  Covering everything from gender equality to the ecology of the deep oceans, they form a comprehensive description of the key challenges we face in making sustainable development a reality.

The UN sees businesses as a key player in meeting the goals. Why should business bother? And where do you start?

I'm writing a series of articles for The Environmentalist exploring these questions, and the first one is out today (11th February).  It introduces the goals, and looks in detail at Goal 1 End poverty in all its forms everywhere and Goal 5 Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

You can access the article, and plenty of other environmental news, here, either sign in with your IEMA login, subscribe or take a free trial.

Alternatively, there's a pdf of it here.

 

How we do things round here

Organisational culture. Where to begin? Like behaviour change and values, it's one of those phenomena of human experience that promises to unlock sustainability if you can only work out how to harness it, but tantalises by just not being reducible to simple rules or mechanistic predictions.

The canny editorial team over at The Environmentalist invited me to write a two-part feature to introduce IEMA members to this scotch mist, and I love a challenge like that.  Even though I know the result will be partial and full of holes, I'd love to help people begin to navigate this treacherous territory with a few useful landmarks.

So I had a go, and part one is available here and part two here.

Essential sources

The research and planning process for the article was fun too, once I'd decided to focus right down on something manageable. (After all, this was for a 1,400 word feature, not a thesis.)

I chose to re-read Edgar Schein's classic Organizational Culture and Leadership. The resulting mind map of notes is two A4 sheets of close tiny handwriting. I also finally got round to properly reading William Bridges' Character of Organisations, which I was introduced to by Lindsey Colbourne (I still have your copy Lindsey!) when she was helping Sciencewise think about designing approaches to public dialogue which match the organisational cultures found in Whitehall Departments and government agencies.  Her insightful background research report on the "Departmental Dialogue Index" is here and the summary paper containing the diagnostic tool is here.

Schein's book is wonderful for its stories. I enjoyed being alongside him as a reader, as he gradually realises how little he understands the organisations he is exploring. He opens himself up to not knowing, thereby allowing himself to hear the new (more accurate) interpretations of the behaviours and artefacts.  There's something of the anthropologist about him, understanding organisations by being present in them as a participant observer.

Bridges' approach starts from a framework more commonly used to understand the individual - the MBTI's contrasting pairs of judging / perceiving; sensing / intuition; extraversion / introversion; thinking / feeling.  He takes this and looks at how it might manifest in organisations.

This is arguably a less intellectually rigorous approach than Schein's. I definitely find myself drawn to the open-endedness and ambiguity of the anthropologist. But there is also something attractively pragmatic in Bridges' work. And the book contains a questionnaire that readers can use to assess an organisation - good for people (and organisations) which like applied theory.

Sharing TUI Travel's journey

Many thanks to Rosie Bristow and Sarah Holloway who took the time to talk to me about how understanding organisational culture within TUI Travel helped them to tailor their sustainability work to be more effective.  As well as reading about this in my article, you can see the enthusiastic buy-in they've generated here.

 

Collaborative Advantage

Collaborative Advantage needs to exist, in order for the extra work that collaborating takes to be worth it! My colleague Lynn Wetenhall puts it like this, in training and capacity building  we've developed for the Environment Agency:

"Collaborative advantage is the outcomes or additional benefits that we can achieve only by working with others."

Know when to collaborate...

When contemplating collaborating, you need to make at least an initial cost-benefit judgement and this relies on understanding the potential collaborative advantage. Chris Huxham in Creating Collaborative Advantage waxes rather lyrical:

“Collaborative advantage will be achieved when something unusually creative is produced – perhaps an objective is met – that no organization could have produced on its own and when each organization, through the collaboration, is able to achieve its own objectives better than it could alone.”

But it’s even better than that!

Huxham goes on:

“In some cases, it should also be possible to achieve some higher-level … objectives for society as a whole rather than just for the participating organizations.”

So collaborative advantage is that truly sweet spot, when not only do you meet goals of your own that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise, you can also make things better for people and the planet.  Definitely sustainable development territory.

...and when not to

There’s another side to the collaborative advantage coin.

If the potential collaborative advantage is not high enough, or you can achieve your goals just as well working alone, then it may be that collaboration is not the best approach.

A moment of commitment - reflections on writing

Tempting and disconcerting in equal measure: being asked to write a book is such a flattering thing, dangerously seductive; being asked to write a book is such a frightening thing, because "what if it's rubbish?"  Putting something in writing is a moment of commitment: hard for an inveterate hedger and fence-sitter like me.  (I couldn't even decide between 'hedger' and 'fence-sitter', could I?)

Avoiding temptation, taking courage

In an attempt to stop it being rubbish, and to remind myself that it's not me that's being flattered - it's the wise things I've learnt from others - I made a conscious choice to stand on shoulders of giants both for theory and for tips that really make a difference, when writing Working Collaboratively.

I found some great academic research and theory before I decided that I really needed to stop reading and get on with writing.  But it was more on 'collaborative governance' (advising others on how to do things) than multi-sector collaboration to get things done.  Noticing that distinction helped me decide what to get my teeth into.

What kind of collaboration?

I knew I wanted to include examples, and there were plenty out there even from a cursory look.  But I wanted to find ones which were more than contractual, more than cause-related marketing, and which involved multiple collaborators not just two (you can't change a system with just two players).  I wasn't so interested in crowd-sourcing,  where the hive mind is used to generate multiple clever ideas which might be the solution, but stops short of putting collaborative solutions into practice. That feels like another form of consultation to me.

It's not to say these are bad things: but to me they are less difficult and less necessary than when collaboration is a way to solve system-level wicked problems, where there is a need for simultaneous action by players who each bring a different piece of the jigsaw with them.

So I drew up some criteria and then searched for examples which both met those criteria and that I had a head-start with: knowing key players, for example, who I could be confident would at least read my email or return my call.

Hearty thanks to everyone who made time to be interviewed or to give me their perspective on some of the examples.

Book writing as a project

The project has followed a pattern I'm now pretty familiar with, in my consulting, training and facilitation work:

  • excitement and disbelief at being invited to do such a cool thing;
  • fear that I'll have nothing interesting or useful enough to say;
  • writing myself a little aide memoire to keep those pesky internal voices at bay;
  • mind mapping key points and allocating word count (in a training or facilitation situation, that would allocating minutes!);
  • less familiar was the long research phase, which is not something have to do very often and was a real luxury;
  • identifying examples and interviewees.

Then the actual creativity begins: knitting new things, finding scraps of existing articles, handouts or blogs to recycle and stitching it together like a quilt with additional embroidery and applique. I start committing myself to a narrative thread, to a point of view, to some definitive statements.

Then the first of many moments of truth: sending the draft off and nervously awaiting the feedback - sitting over my email until it arrives and then putting off the moment of actually opening it and reading the response.

Altering and amending the draft in response to that feedback and to my own nagging unhappiness with how I've captured something which may be very hard to pin down.

And then there's a dip: the boredom as I get too familiar with the material: is there anything new here? Will anyone else find it interesting?

At that point I know I need to leave it all to settle for a bit and come back to it fresh after some weeks.  Fortunately, when I did, I felt "yes, this is what I wanted to say, this is how I wanted to say it" and crucially: "this has got things in it that readers will find useful, amusing, novel, easy to understand."

Collaboration of goodwill

It's sobering and enlightening to remember how much goodwill was involved - interviewees, people who gave me permission to use models and frameworks; anonymous and other reviewers; people helping to get the word out about it.  There was a lot of swapping favours and continuing to build and reinforce working relationships.  It might be possible to analyse these all down to hard-nosed motivations, but I think much of it was trust-based and fuelled by enthusiasm for the topic and a long history of comfortable working relationships.

What did I say?

As an author, it feels as if the project is ended when the final proofs go back to the publisher.  But of course it doesn't, thankfully, end there.  Now that I've been invited to blog, present or share expertise off the back of the book (e.g. Green Mondays, MAFN, DareConf) I have to remind myself of what I've written!  Because your thinking doesn't stand still, nor should it.

 

 

What you need from your facilitator, when you're collaborating

Researching Working Collaboratively, I heard a lot about the importance of a skillful facilitator.  And you can see why.  Collaboration happens when different people or organisations want to achieve something - and they need common ground about what it is they want to achieve.  They might both want the same thing or they may want complementary things. Since finding common ground is not easy, it's good to know facilitators can help.

Common ground, common process

But it's not just common ground on the goals that need to be achieved, it's common ground on the process too.  It's essential to be able to find ways to work together (not just things to work together on).

Process can be invisible - you're so used to the way your own organisation does things, that you may not see that these processes are choices. And it's possible to choose to do things in other ways.

This can be as simple as using descriptive agendas (which set out clearly what the task is for each item e.g. 'create a range of options', 'discuss and better understand the options', 'identify the group's top three options', 'agree which option to recommend', 'agree which option to take forward') rather than the more usual summary version (Item 1: options).

Or it might be agreeing to set up special simultaneous consultation and decision mechanisms within each of the collaborating organisations rather than each one going at its own usual, different, pace.

To be able to make these choices, process needs to be brought to conscious awareness and explicitly discussed.  This will be a key part of any facilitator's role.

Disagreement without conflict

Collaboration is about agreement, of course.  But if the organisations have identical aims and ways of meeting them, then they might as well merge rather than collaborate!  In collaboration, you must also expect disagreement and difference.

Sometimes people may be so keen to find the common ground, that discussing the areas of disagreement and difference becomes taboo.  Much more healthy is being able to discuss and acknowledge difference in an open and confident way.  A facilitator who is used to saying: "I notice that there is a difference of view here.  Let's understand it better!" in a perky and comfortable way can help collaborators be at ease with disagreement.

Building trust

Your facilitator will also need to help you be open about the constraints and pressures which are limiting your ability to broaden the common ground about desired outcomes or process.  Perhaps a public body cannot commit funds more than one year ahead.  Perhaps a community or campaign group needs to maintain its ability to be publicly critical of organisations it is collaborating with. A business may need to be able to show a return on investment to shareholders. In most cases, the people 'in the room' will need to take some provisional decisions back to their organisation for ratification.

Just like the areas of disagreement, these constraints can be hard to talk about.  Some clients I work with express embarrassment bordering almost on shame when they explain to potential collaborators the internal paperwork they 'must' use on certain types of collaborative project.

Much better to be open about these constraints so that everyone understands them.  That's when creative solutions or happy compromises arise.

A neutral facilitator?

Do you need your facilitator to be independent, or do they need to have a stake in the success of the collaboration?  This is the 'honest broker / organic leader' conundrum explored here.

I have seen real confusion of process expertise and commitment to the content, when collaborative groupings have been looking for facilitation help.  For example, the UK's Defra policy framework on the catchment based approach to improving water quality seems to assume that organisations will offer to 'host' collaborations with minimal additional resources.  If you don't have a compelling outcome that you want to achieve around water, why would you put yourself forward to do this work?  And if you do, you will find it hard (though not impossible) to play agenda-neutral process facilitator role. There is a resource providing process advice to these hosts (Guide to Collaborative Catchment Management), but I am not sure that any of them have access to professional facilitation.

This is despite the findings of the evaluation, which say that facilitation expertise is a 'crucial competency':

"Going forward, pilot hosts indicate that funding, or in-kind contribution, for the catchment co-ordinator and independent facilitation roles is essential."   (p8)

And Defra's own policy framework makes clear that involving facilitators is crucial to success:

"Utilising expert facilitation to help Partnerships address a range of issues for collaborative working including stakeholder identification and analysis, planning meetings, decision-making and engaging with members of the public [is a key way of working]."

There seems to be some understanding of the agenda-neutral facilitation role, but a lack of real answers to how it will be resourced.

I will be fascinated to see how this plays out in practice - do comment if you have experience of this in action.

 

 

Summer round up

Sorry I haven't been over at this blog properly for a while: I've been busy blogging elsewhere to tell people about Working Collaboratively. Here's a round-up of the other places where I've been writing.

Blogtastic

Guardian Sustainable Business  Collaborating can be frustrating but it isn't about sublimating your organisation's goals – it's about discovering common ground...

Business Green It's time for business to gang up on the barriers to change.  Businesses need to collaborate with NGOs, communities and the public sector to make serious change happen...   (To read this one, you will need to be a Business Green subscriber or register for a free trial.)

Forum for the Future / Green Futures Blog  Shipping leaders look for common ground. Change in the shipping system will depend on time, trust and an independent third party...

Defra's SD Scene Newsletter  Who might collaborate with you? The book contains frameworks, tools and interviews with people who have collaborated to achieve sustainable development outcomes, including from one of Defra’s recent Catchment Based Approach pilots to improve river health and water quality.

CSR Wire Finding the Dots: Why Collaborate When We Have Nothing In Common?  When the problem is intractable, systemic and locked-in, it’s the very people you think you are in competition with who you need to listen to with the closest attention and the most open mind. 

I've enjoyed the challenge of finding new angles on the same basic messages.  I hope you enjoy reading them.

Amazonian

Mixed feelings on seeing that the book is now available on Amazon, too.  You can get it as an ebook or paperback.  I'm not sure how good Amazon's record is in collaborating for sustainable development goals... But at least there's a review function so people could share their thoughts on this paradox through that forum.

Collaborate: over and over again.....

One of the points that I end up stressing in collaboration training, and try to get across in the book, is the iterative nature of collaboration. Working Collaboratively is organised around three 'threads': what, who and how.  'What' is the compelling outcome you want to achieve, 'who' are the collaborators and 'how' is your process or ways of working.  And you could think of these three threads being plaited together, because they are inseparable and they continue to need attention in parallel.

The 'over and over again' iteration happens for all three threads.  As you explore shared or complementary outcomes, potential collaborators get closer or move away.  As it becomes clearer who the collaborators will be, ways of working which suit them emerge or need to be thrashed out.  As process develops, greater honesty and trust enables people to understand better what they can achieve together.

Plaited loops

So these three plaited threads (who, what, how) loop the loop as you go forwards - being reviewed and changed.

We explored putting in a graphic to illustrate this, but my idea couldn't be transferred to an image successfully.  My very poor sketch will have to suffice.

Why does this matter?

Exploratory, tentative and above all slow progress can be exasperating not just for the collaborators but for their managers or constituencies.  What's going on?  Why aren't there any decisions yet?  What are you spending all this time on, with so little to show for it?  The investment in having what feels like the same conversation over and over again is essential.  Collaborators need to appreciate that, and so do the people they report to.

“Working Collaboratively: A Practical Guide to Achieving More” Use PWP15 for 15% discount.

I learn it from a book

Manuel, the hapless and put-upon waiter at Fawlty Towers, was diligent in learning English, despite the terrible line-management skills of Basil Fawlty.  As well as practising in the real world, he is learning from a book. Crude racial stereotypes aside, this is a useful reminder that books can only take us so far.  And the same is true of Working Collaboratively.  To speak collaboration like a native takes real-world experience.  You need the courage to practise out loud.

The map is not the territory

The other thing about learning from a book is that you'll get stories, tips, frameworks and tools, but when you begin to use them you won't necessarily get the expected results.  Not in conversation with someone whose mother tongue you are struggling with, and not when you are exploring collaboration.

Because the phrase book is not the language and the map is not the territory.

Working collaboratively: a health warning

So if you do get hold of a copy of Working Collaboratively (and readers of this blog get 15% off with code PWP15) and begin to apply some of the advice: expect the unexpected.

There's an inherent difficulty in 'taught' or 'told' learning, which doesn't occur in quite the same way in more freeform 'learner led' approaches like action learning or coaching.  When you put together a training course or write a book, you need to give it a narrative structure that's satisfying.  You need to follow a thread, rather than jumping around the way reality does.  Even now, none of the examples I feature in the book would feel they have completed their work or fully cracked how to collaborate.

That applies especially to the newest ones: Sustainable Shipping Initiative or the various collaborators experimenting with catchment level working in England.

Yours will be unique

So don't feel you've done it wrong if your pattern isn't the same, or the journey doesn't seem as smooth, with as clear a narrative arc as some of those described in the book.

And when you've accumulated a bit of hindsight, share it with others: what worked, for you? What got in the way?  Which of the tools or frameworks helped you and which make no sense, now you look back at what you've achieved?

Do let me know...

Working collaboratively: world premiere!

So it's here! A mere nine months after first being contacted by Nick Bellorini of DōSustainability, my e-book on collaboration is out!

Over the next few weeks, I'll be blogging on some of the things that really struck me about writing it and that I'm still chewing over.  In the meantime, I just wanted to let you know that it's out there, and you, dear reader, can get it with 15% off if you use the code PWP15 when you order it. See more here.

It's an e-book - and here's something cool for the dematerialisation and sharing economy geeks: you can rent it for 48 hours, just like a film!  Since it's supposed to be a 90 minute read, that should work just fine.

Thanks!

And I couldn't have done it without the wonderful colleagues, clients, peers, critics, fellow explorers and tea-makers who helped out.

Andrew Acland, Cath Beaver, Craig Bennett, Fiona Bowles, Cath Brooks, Signe Bruun Jensen, Ken Caplan, Niamh Carey, Lindsey Colbourne, Stephanie Draper, Lindsay Evans, James Farrell, Chris Grieve, Michael Guthrie, Charlotte Millar, Paula Orr, Helena Poldervaart, Chris Pomfret, Jonathon Porritt, Keith Richards, Clare Twigger-Ross, Neil Verlander, Lynn Wetenhall; others at the Environment Agency; people who have been involved in the piloting of the Catchment Based Approach in England in particular in the Lower Lee, Tidal Thames and Brent; and others who joined in with an InterAct Networks peer learning day on collaboration.

Water wise: different priorities need different targeted engagement

For Diageo, the drinks company, agricultural suppliers typically represent more than 90% of its water footprint, so of course it's vital that the company’s water strategy looks beyond its own four walls to consider sustainable water management and risks in the supply chain. By contrast, what matters most for Unilever in tackling its global water footprint is reducing consumers’ water use when they are doing laundry, showering and washing their hair, particularly in countries where water is scarce. Asking office staff to report dripping taps will contribute to the firm’s water efficiency, but it is much less useful than innovating a generation of products that use less water for cleaning.

Once you know what the main water-using phases are in your product or service system, you can prioritise and target. the audiences you want to engage.

This article in the environmentalist looks at the questions you need to ask yourself, to work out how to engage people in water efficiency.  You can download it here or read it online on the environmentalist's website (you may need to log in or sign up for a free trial to read it online).