Working Collaboratively

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.

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.

 

 

 

Has there been a tipping point for sustainable business?

Sustainability types were discussing the Sustainable Development Goals (aka Global Goals) in London last night, at a regular meeting of The Crowd. If you are twitter-enabled, you can search for the #crowdforum tweets to follow that way.

I've got very interested in the SDGs, since being asked to write a series of articles about how business is responding, for The Environmentalist.

There was some great conversation, and I was particularly struck by Claire Melamed's view that businesses can cherry pick (or have strategic priorities) among the SDGs, as long as a business doesn't actively undermine any of the goals or targets.  That seems a pretty clear minimum ask!

How would you tell if a goal is being actively undermined?

So how would you tell?  Perhaps the easiest is to do an audit-style check against all 169 of the targets, and spot the krill oil which is staining the otherwise spotless business practices. Some will be easier to test than others, so the views of stakeholders will probably be useful in helping see the business's practices from a variety of angles.

What are the sanctions and disincentives?

The people who spoke about this seemed to be relying on good old fashioned campaigns to bring the undermining to public attention and turn it into a business issue for the company concerned.  Which seems pretty familiar to me. One person used the Greenpeace campaign against the use of unsustainable palm oil by Nestle's Kit Kat as an example.  And that campaign was way back in 2010. Friends of the Earth was launched in the UK with a mass bottle dump outside Schweppes headquarters, which became a well-known photo at the time.  Social media ensures that campaigns like this can become viral in a few hours. But in essence they are nothing new.

Another person said "you'd have to be not in your right mind, to actively undermine any of these goals."  And perhaps she's right.  But it's clear that either lots of people haven't been in their right minds, or perhaps it's been perfectly rational to undermine social and ecological life support systems, because we are here and here isn't a great place for many of the critical issues highlighted by the global goals.  Once again I find myself wobbling between irrational optimism and chronic unease.

But let's give this optimist the benefit of the doubt, and assume that it is now rational to avoid actively undermining the goals. 

What's changed?

The claim was made, with some strength of feeling, that COP21's agreement in Paris has made a tangible difference, with analysts using climate and fossil fuel exposure to make investment recommendations.  And there seemed to be general agreement in the room that this was new and significant.  And today, two days after the Crowd forum event, comes the news that Peabody Energy (the world's biggest privately-owned coal producer) has filed for bankruptcy.  So that's one of the 17 goals accounted for. 

Other voices suggested that the 17 goals will set a broad context for action by policy makers and government, helping business decision-makers have more certainty about what the future holds and therefore being more confident to invest in goal-friendly products, services and ways of doing business.  On the other hand, people noticed the apparent disconnect between the UK Government's pledges in Paris, and its action to undermine renewables and energy efficiency, and support fossil fuel extraction, in the subsequent budget and policy decisions.

Another change was the rise of the millenials, who make up increasing proportions of the workforce, electorate and buying public.  Their commitment to values was seen as a reason for optimism, although there was also a recognition that we can't wait for them to clear up our mess.  (As someone who still clears up her own millenial children's mess, while said young people are jetting off and buying fast fashion off the interwebs, I am perhaps a little cynical about how values translate into action for this generation.)

And the final bid for what's changed, is the recognition and willingness of players to collaborate in order to create system-level change.  And the good news on this is that there is a lot of practical understanding being shared about how to make collaboration work (Working Collaboratively is just one contribution to this), and specialist organisations to help.

So has there been a tipping point?

Lots of people were insisting to me that there has.  There were few negative voices. In fact, some contributors said they were bored and in danger of falling asleep, such was the level of agreement in the room.  I was left with the impression that we're getting close to a critical mass of business leaders wanting to do the right thing, and they need support and pressure from the rest of us to make it in their short-term interests to do so.

So is it back to the placards, or sticking with the post-it notes?

Collaboration requires high-quality internal working : fourth characteristic

Sometimes we're drawn to the idea of collaborating because we are finding our colleagues impossible! If this is your secret motivation, I have bad news: successful collaboration requires high-quality internal working in each of the collaborating organisations.

So you need to find a way of working with those impossible colleagues too.

Why?

Selling the leap of faith

Partly, of course, it's about getting permission to take the leap of faith needed to invest in the inherently uncertain adventure of collaboration.  Because decisions are shared, success may look different to what you expected (which is a characteristic challenge I'll tackle later in this series).  So you will need to be able to sell the idea of collaboration, or of this particular collaboration, to the people who can tell you to stop working on it or defend the time you are devoting to it.

If the collaboration is going to help you meet a core organisational goal (like getting a piece of legislation passed or building a flood defence scheme) then this will be easier than if its benefits are more diffuse or instrumental (like improving the organisation's reputation or reducing staff turnover).

On message

Once you're in collaboration mode, consistent messages and attitudes are crucial.  Everyone in your organisation who interacts with people from the collaborating organisation needs to know that you are working together. People need an opportunity to voice and check their assumptions about what this means in practice.

Part of the initial stakeholder and contextual analysis looks inward: who in our organisation already has relationships with our potential collaborators? Who is already familiar with the topic or geography that the collaboration is going to be operating in?

These people may need a sophisticated understanding of the collaboration. If the organisations also need to remain aloof for some aspects of their work, then people need to know that. Regulators don't give collaborators an easier ride, nor should they. Campaign groups will want to retain their ability to be critical in public.  Businesses need to be clear about what they are donating or providing pro bono, and what they will need to charge for.

No matter how sophisiticated it needs to be at that level, there are some simple things that you can do like helping to introduce people to the most appropriate counterparts (for example, matching seniority levels), having a single point of contact (a bit like an account manager) who knows how the organisations are interacting, and keeping key public-facing people informed about what's happening.

Work arounds

Every organisation has its little ways: policies, expectations, guidance, explicit or unspoken assumptions about how things are done. These don't always match the ways that other organisation do things. In fact, there will almost certainly be something your organisation thinks is as natural as breathing, that your collaborators think is deeply weird.

Because decisions are shared, you will need to agree with your collaborators how to work together.  This is one of the three threads in the plait that loops through the early stages.

But you may find that despite having done so, there are others inside your own organisation who say that things 'must' be done in a certain way.  One big public body I work with has a generic Memorandum of Understanding which runs to sixty pages.  The unstaffed community groups they hope to collaborate with will run a mile if faced with that.  The canny staff have learnt to develop work arounds which (just about) satisfy their internal legal specialists and are less alarming for the voluntary organisations.

Another client is used to being a service provider to its own clients.  Their approach to the early stages of collaboration mirrors their process for 'qualifying' business opportunities but takes account of the fact that the deliverables may not be pinned down until much later than usual.

If your organisation is used to bossing others around (as a customer, regulator or campaign group) then a more collegiate approach may be hard to cultivate.  If you are used to being a supplier, then you need to develop a more assertive way of interacting with collaborators who are not customers and not 'always right'.  Noticing that a shift in framing is needed, and helping to bring it about, is a critical internally-facing part of collaborating.

Doing what you've said you'll do

And this brings us back to where we came in: collaboration is about doing things together, not just having conversations and finding out what you agree (and disagree) about. Delivering.

Sooner or later, your organisation will need to commit real people's real time and budgets to taking action which has been dreamt up and agreed by the collaborators.

This shouldn't feel like it is happening on top of the day job: if your collaboration is aiming to achieve outcomes that your organisation finds compelling, it should be part of the day job for people.  But things often feel clunkier than that, at least in the early stages.

So your high-quality internal working needs to include dovetailing in with work planning and strategy-setting, so that there is room people's day jobs to both negotiate what will be delivered, and to deliver it.

Characteristics of collaborative working, episode one of six

There are some typical challenges in inter-organisational collaboration which it's as well to be ready for.  I'll summarise them here, and then blog in more detail about each one over the coming weeks.

Six characteristics

These six characteristics emerged from research I carried out with experienced collaborators from the Environment Agency, when putting together some training for their managers on how to develop and support a team culture which supports collaboration.  This training was developed and delivered with InterAct Networks (including Lynn Wetenhall) and a small internal client team, and some of Working Collaboratively also draws on this work.

Here's a little about our first characteristic - it isn't easy.

It isn't easy

This may sound a little trite, but there is an important insight here: you choose to collaborate (rather than work alone) when the problem you want to solve or the outcome you want to achieve is something that you can't tackle alone.  Why can't you tackle it alone?  Most likely because it is complex, systemic, entrenched, wicked, long-standing.  And all of those things make it hard.

So you are using an inherently difficult approach (collaboration - see the other five characteristics for what makes it inherently hard) to tackle a hard situation.

Which means: if you are finding it hard, it doesn't necessarily mean that you are doing it wrong!

I say this so you can find comfort in knowing that the hardness is a feature of the landscape, to be expected.  Don't beat yourself (or your colleagues, or your collaborators) up.

Instead, discuss the hardness.  "Hey team, this is proving hard!  What do we need to keep doing, and what do we need to do differently, in the face of the difficulties?".  Knowing that it's OK to have this conversation - because the hardness is inherent rather than anyone's fault - will free you up to find new ways to address things or the strength to continue with the things you are already doing.

 

It's not all or nothing - there's a spectrum of collaborative working

It's not all or nothing - there's a spectrum of collaborative working

Does collaboration sound like too much hard work? The examples of collaboration which get most attention are the big, the bold, the game changing.

Which can be a bit off-putting. If I collaborate, will I be expected to do something as hard and all-consuming?

Actually, most collaborative work is much more modest. And even the big and bold began as something doable.

So what kind of work might collaborators do together?

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.

DareMini

So DareConfMini was a bit amazing. What a day. Highlights:

  • Follow your jealousy from Elizabeth McGuane
  • Situational leadership for ordinary managers from Meri Williams
  • The challenge of applying the great advice you give to clients, to your own work and practice from Rob Hinchcliffe
  • Finding something to like about the people who wind you up the most from Chris Atherton
  • Being brave enough to reveal your weaknesses from Tim Chilvers
  • Jungian archetypes to help you make and stick to commitments from Gabriel Smy
  • Radical challenges to management orthodoxy from Lee Bryant
  • Meeting such interesting people at the after party

No doubt things will continue to churn and emerge for me as it all settles down, and I'll blog accordingly.

In the meantime, all the videos and slides can be watched here and there are some great graphic summaries here (from Francis Rowland) and here (from Elisabeth Irgens)

There are also longer posts than mine from Charlie Peverett at Neo Be Brave! Lessons from Dare and Banish the January blues – be brave and get talking from Emma Allen.

If you are inspired to go to DareConf in September, early bird with substantial discounts are available until 17th February.

Many thanks to the amazing Jonathan Kahn and Rhiannon Walton who are amazing event organisers - and it's not even their day job. They looked after speakers very well and I got to realise a childhood fantasy of dancing at Sadler's Wells. David Caines drew the pictures.

 

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.

Leadership teams for collaboration

"Who will make sure it doesn't fall over?"

This was a question posed by someone in a workshop I facilitated, which brought together stakeholders (potential collaborators) who shared an interest in a water catchment.

It was a good question. In a collaboration, where equality between organisations is a value - and the pragmatic as well as philosophical truth is that everyone is only involved because they choose to be - what constitutes leadership? How do you avoid no-one taking responsibility because everyone is sharing responsibility?

If the collaboration stops moving forwards, like a bicycle it will be in danger of falling over.  Who will step forward to right it again, give it a push and help it regain momentum?

Luxurious reading time

I've been doing some reading, in preparating for writing a slim volume on collaboration for the lovely people over at DōSustainability. (Update: published July 2013.) It's been rather lovely to browse the internet, following my nose from reference to reference.  I found some great academic papers, including "Collaborative Governance in Theory and Practice" by Chris Ansell and Alison Gash.  This paper is based on a review of 137 case studies, and draws out what the authors call 'critical variables' which influence the success of attempts at collaborative governance.

It's worth just pausing to notice that this paper focuses on 'collaborative governance', which you could characterise as when stakeholders come together to make decisions about what some other organisation is going to do (e.g. agree a management plan for a nature reserve ), to contrast it with other kinds of collaboration where the stakeholders who choose to collaborate are making decisions about what they themselves will do, to further the common or complementary aims of the collaboration (e.g. the emerging work of Tasting the Future).

Leadership as a critical variable

Ansell and Gash identify leadership as one of these critical variables.  They say:

"Although 'unassisted' negotiations are sometimes possible, the literature overwhelmingly finds that facilitative leadership is important for bringing stakeholders together and getting them to engage each other in a collaborative spirit."

What kind of person can provide this facilitative leadership?  Do they have to be disinterested, in the manner of an agenda-neutral facilitator?  Or do they have to be a figure with credibility and power within the system, to provide a sense of agency to the collaboration?

Interestingly, Ansell and Gash think both are needed, depending on whether power is distributed relatively equally or relatively unequally among the potential collaborators.  It's worth quoting at some length here:

"Where conflict is high and trust is low, but power distribution is relatively equal and stakeholders have an incentive to participate, then collaborative governance can successfully proceed by relying on the services of an honest broker that the respective stakeholders accept and trust."

This honest broker will pay attention to process and remain 'above the fray' - a facilitator or mediator.

"Where power distribution is more asymmetric or incentives to participate are weak or asymmetric, then collaborative governance is more likely to succeed if there is a strong "organic" leader who commands the respect and trust of the various stakeholders at the outset of the process."

An organic leader emerges from among the stakeholders, and my reading of the paper suggests that their strength may come from the power and credibility of their organisation as well as personal qualities like technical knowledge, charisma and so on.

While you can buy in a neutral facilitator (if you have the resource to do so), you cannot invent a trusted, powerful 'organic' leader if they are not already in the system. Ansell and Gash note "an implication of this contingency is that the possibility for effective collaboration may be seriously constrained by a lack of leadership."

Policy framework for collaboration

I'm also interested in this right now, because of my involvement in the piloting of the Catchment Based Approach.  I have been supporting people both as a facilitator (honest broker) and by building the capacity of staff at the Environment Agency to work collaboratively and 'host' or 'lead' collaborative work in some of the pilot catchments.  The former role has been mainly with Dialogue by Design, and latter with InterAct Networks.

One of the things that has been explored in these pilots, is what the differences are when the collaboration is hosted by the Environment Agency, and when it is hosted by another organisation, as in for example Your Tidal Thames or the Brent Catchment Partnership.

There was a well-attended conference on February 14th, where preliminary results were shared and Defra officials talked about what may happen next. The policy framework which Defra is due to set out in the Spring of 2013 will have important implications for where the facilitative leadership comes from.

One of the phrases used in Defra's presentation was 'independent host' and another was 'facilitator'.  It's not yet clear what Defra might mean by these two phrases.  I immediately wondered: independent of what, or of whom?  Might this point towards the more agenda-neutral facilitator, the honest broker?  If so, how will this be resourced?

I am thoughtful about whether these catchments might have the characteristics where the Ansell and Gash's honest broker will succeed, or whether they have characteristics which indicate an organic leader is needed.  Perhaps both would be useful, working together in a leadership team.

Those designing the policy framework could do worse than read this paper.

Do-ing it together

Have you come across - new e-publishers who are bringing out a series of 90 minute reads on key sustainability topics?  I particularly liked Anne Augustine's First 100 Days on the Job, for new sustainability leads. Now I've been asked to write a slim volume on collaboration for the great people at Dō.  I'm very excited about this - and I want to do it collaboratively.

So tell me: what are your favourite examples of successful sustainability collaborations?

Collaboration: doing together what you can't do alone; doing together what you both/all want to do; sharing the decision-making about what you do and how you do it.

Post a comment here, or email me.

Thanks, collaborators!