Andrew Acland

It's a marathon not a sprint: fifth characteristic of collaboration

It's rarely a way of getting things done faster that you would alone! If you are looking to collaboration to solve your speed problem, then you need to seek other solutions.

Fifth of six

This post is the fifth in a series of six, covering the six characteristic challenges of collaborative working.

Speculate to accumulate

Collaboration needs up-front investment in understanding the history, context and relationships between potential collaborators.  And once that first phase is over and there's an eager collaborator willing to play, it takes time to explore possible win-wins and work through the details of how you'll work together.  Let alone the time to agree on the action you will take together which moves you all towards the agreed outcomes.

The diagram of the loops of collaboration in this post is an attempt to put this into images.

One of my favourite aphorisms, supplied by the wonderful Elspeth Donovan, is that you have to go slow to go fast. Keep this in mind to reassure yourself and your colleagues when the pace of progress is making you twitchy.

What takes the time?

In collaboration, you can't skimp on the time it takes to

-      build relationships

-      understand the landscape of collaboration

-      understand the culture of potential collaborators

-      explore possible win-wins

-      establish ways of working (formal and informal).

And there are two kinds of time taken up: the time budget (how many hours you have available to work on it) and the calendar time (how much time will elapse before the various milestone decisions or actions occur).

Speaking of the time budget, it takes real people's real time to convene, manage or even just play an active role in a collaboration. This time doesn't need to all come from the initiating organisation: in fact, it's a mistake if it does, because it leads to unhelpful assumptions about whose responsibility it is to keep the show on the road.

Leaders - you can help

If you lead a team who need to initiate and take an active part in collaboration, here are some tips, developed with facilitator extraordinaire Andrew Acland as part of our work with the Environment Agency :

  • Give staff time to explore the ‘landscape’ and understand the history
  • Be patient – don’t expect delivery, or even significant decisions, too soon.
  • Ensure internal reporting processes, deadlines, targets and KPIs are compatible with this reality.  You may need to explain this to senior managers, defending the approach and the time it is taking.  There is a great guide to evaluating collaboration (or 'collective impact' in the terminology of the Collective Impact Forum), which stresses the different things you may need to look for during the early stages (mostly process and proxies) than the delivery phase (deliverables, outputs, outcomes, impacts).
  • Communicate existing work and establish new ‘quick wins’ to maintain interest, support and momentum.
  • Be prepared to stay involved and actively engaged after decisions have been made or policies signed off.  Don’t take up this way of working unless you see it as a long-term commitment.
  • Managers need to have detailed understanding of the organisational, legal and policy context of any collaborative work to be able to make sense of the reality of what their staff will need to do.
  • This might mean some ‘front loading’ of manager time in early stages, so they are sufficiently briefed to both lead and support staff.  This resource needs to come from somewhere.
  • This way of working needs to be planned in, budgeted for and resourced, even if another organisation is ‘convening’ the partnership or collaborative planning process; most collaboration requires work between meetings.

 

Position, Interest, Need - uncovering latent consensus using PIN

Sometimes our work involves facilitating conversations among people who know that they disagree with each other. They may be professional campaigners, politicians or lobbyists. They may be householders or developers.  They may be in the room because a sudden row has blown up triggered by news of a forthcoming decision about funding, planning permission or a change in the law.

Whatever has led to it, the people I'm thinking of have already established a 'position' about the topic, and assume that their job in the meeting is to advocate and defend that position.

Defending a position

Defending a position leads to people asserting certainty about causes, consequences and facts, often more certainty than is justified by the current state of knowledge and analysis.   It encourages people to dispute the facts put forward by others, and to question their motives.  People defending a position often build such an edifice of certainty around themselves that it is very hard for them to move away from their initial position, even if they want to.

The things said about those who don't agree with the position can be damaging to working relationships and lead to a decrease in trust, making subsequent conversations harder.

Win/win or win/lose?

Positional conversations assume a win/lose paradigm.  But what if it were possible to find a win/win?  You can only discover the potential for a win/win if you move beneath the positions and discover the interests and needs.  (I could tell you about boogli fruit, but I'd have to kill you.)  What has led people to develop their positions?  What interests are served by those positions? What are the needs which are met through those interests?

Below the inversion

I was first introduced to this concept by Pippa Hyam and Andrew Acland in their training for Environmental Resolve, an initiative to find consensus to thorny situations run under the umbrella of The Environment Council.  Up until that point, I don't think I'd really understood the difference between a really great compromise, and a true win-win.  It was a fairly life-changing experience.

Using questions to walk down the mountain

How do you help people move away from positions and towards their interests and needs?

One approach is to help people avoid getting positional, at least too early on in the conversation. This may be hard to avoid: positions may already have been taken.  But it you aren't in that situation yet, the facilitator can help the group enormously by holding them in the uncertainty and exploration phase: the not-knowing.  Invite people to tell their stories and share their perspectives about the problem, issue or desired future in an open way.  If options have been generated, get people to explore their pros and cons without asking them to express a preference.

If positions have already been expressed, then the facilitator's greatest asset is their ability to ask straight questions and then listen in a genuine spirit of curiosity.  Using questions like "what would that give you?" or asking a participant to "tell us more about why that's something you'd like to see" invites people to say more about the things that underlie their positions.

Listening really well, reflecting back on what's been said to check understanding and show that the person has been heard, and asking further questions which clarify or invite expansion - these interpersonal skills are invaluable.

 

When uncertainty leads to conflict

Why do we find ourselves in conflict, instead of in disagreement? One of reasons is the anxiety we feel when faced with uncertainty. Do we know the facts? Do we know the cause and effect relationships between them? How sure can we be that our actions will have the intended consequences?

I’m delighted to be able to bring you the latest words of wisdom on managing uncertainty, from Andrew Acland, facilitator and mediator extraordinaire and author of “A sudden outbreak of common sense: Managing conflict through mediation”.

Andrew says:

“Uncertainty is a feature of many of the situations in which mediators and facilitators are asked to work for several reasons. First, our work tends to be in fairly complex situations, and often uncertainty is one source of that complexity. Secondly, any situation that involves human beings involves uncertainty: we are a tricky species. Thirdly, uncertainty creates conflict – which is why we get called for in the first place.

The purpose of this note is to suggest what we can do with uncertainty when it rears its awkward head in the middle of an already difficult meeting.”

Click here to read Andrew’s full paper.