collaboration

Facilitating and convening when you're not neutral

facilitating slides.png

Many organisations in the sustainability field do their best system-changing work when they are collaborating. They recognise this, and they seek out collaborators who, like them, want to make more change than one organisation can do working alone.

They understand the power of collaboration so well, that they put resources and staff time into facilitating and convening it.

And they find themselves in a challenging situation - playing the role of convening and facilitating, whilst also being a collaborator, with expertise and an opinion on what a good outcome would look like and how to get to it.

Why is it a problem?

When you have expertise and a point of view on the topic being discussed, and you're also the convenor or facilitator, it causes three kinds of problems:

  • You are insufficiently neutral (or are thought to be) when you are playing the 'honest broker' role, helping the rest of the group discover their consensus.  The decisions made unravel, because they are not deeply owned by the group.
  • Your point of view and your expertise are lost to the group, unless someone else can contribute them on your (or your organisation's) behalf.
  • The people you have convened don't see themselves as collaborators, rolling their sleeves up to get on with real work after the conversation. They see themselves as consultees, telling you what your should do after the conversation.

These problems are not insurmountable, but they are real. Understanding that they are an inherent feature of being a non-neutral facilitator/convenor helps you to anticipate them, spot them when they occur and mitigate.

Thinking it through as a team

I work with a lot of organisations who are in this position, and recently I ran a half-day masterclass for one of them. The masterclass began with me setting out the problem, and then the group shared their actual experiences and discussed what they wanted to do about it.

Here are the slides, suitably anonymised.

Once you understand the typical challenges, you can decide which situations need that additional neutrality, which really need you to be 'in' the conversation, and come up with ways of making sure that happens.  There are some ideas here.

I'd love to help other organisations think through these dilemmas and make their own choices about them.

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.

 

 

 

Who are "we"?

When people are collaborating or working in groups, there is sometimes ambiguity about where things (like policy decisions, research briefings, proposals) have come from, and who is speaking for whom.  If you are convening a collaboration (or being a “backbone” organisation) this can be especially sensitive.  Collaborating organisations may think that when you say “we”, you mean “we, the convenor team” when in fact you mean “we, all the collaborating organisations in this collaboration”.  Or vice versa.  This can lead to misunderstanding, tension, anger if people think you are either steam-rollering them or not properly including them.

Who are 'You'?   

In general, think about whether to say “you” or “we”.  When you use "you", there's a very clear divide between yourself and the people you are addressing.  This is often going to be unhelpful in collaboration, as it can reinforce suspiscions that the collaboration is not a coalition of willing equals, but somehow a supplicant or hierarchical relationship.

Who are 'we'?

“We” is clearly more collaborative, BUT the English language is ambiguous here, so watch out!

“We” can mean

‘me and these other people, not including you’ 

(This is technically called ‘exclusive we’, by linguists.)

 Or

‘me and you’ (and maybe some other people).  

(‘Inclusive we’, to linguists.)

If you mean ‘me and you’, but the reader or listener hears ‘me and these other people, not including you’, then there can be misunderstandings.

For this reason, it can be helpful to spell out more clearly who you mean rather than just saying ‘we’.

What might this look like in practice?

These are examples from real work, anonymised.

In a draft detailed facilitation plan for a workshop, the focus question proposed was:

"What can we do to enable collaborative working?”

It was changed to:

“What can managers in our respective organisations do to enable collaborative working?”

The ‘we’ in original question was meant to signify “all of us participating in this session today” but the project group commenting on the plan interpreted it as “the organisers”.  The new wording took out ‘we’ and used a more specific set of words instead.

A draft workshop report contained this paragraph:

“We do not have an already established pot of money for capital programmes that may flow from this project. One opportunity is to align existing spend more effectively to achieve the outcomes we want.”

This was changed to:

“[XXX organisation] does not have an already established pot of money for capital programmes that may flow from this project. One opportunity is to align existing spend more effectively to achieve the outcomes agreed by [YYY collaboration].”

Both uses of ‘we’ were ambiguous.  The first meant ‘The convening organisation’.  The second meant ‘we, the organisations and people involved in agreeing outcomes’.  

The changes make this crystal clear.

Cometh the "our"

 The same ambiguity applies with ‘our’.  For example, when you refer to “our plan” be clear whether you mean “[Organisation XXX]’s plan” or “the plan owned by the organisations collaborating together”. 

Acknowledgements

This post was originally written by Penny Walker, in a slightly different form, for a Learning Bulletin produced by InterAct Networks for the Environment Agency as part of its catchment pilot programme.

For more exciting detail on 'clusivity', including a two-by-two matrix, look here.

 

 

 

 

 

InterAct Networks - thank you for a wonderful ride

For over fifteen years, InterAct Networks worked to put stakeholder and public engagement at the heart of public sector decision-making, especially through focusing on capacity-building in the UK public sector.  This work - through training and other ways of helping people learn, and through helping clients thinks about structures, policies and organisational change - helped organisations get better at strategically engaging with their stakeholders to understand their needs and preferences, get better informed, collaboratively design solutions and put them into practice.  Much of that work has been with the Environment Agency, running the largest capacity-building programme of its kind.

History

InterAct Networks was registered as a Limited Liability Partnership in February 2002.

Founding partners Jeff Bishop, Lindsey Colbourne, Richard Harris and Lynn Wetenhall established InterAct Networks to support the development of 'local facilitator networks' of people wanting to develop facilitation skills from a range of organisations in a locality.

These geographically based networks enabled cross organisational learning and support.  Networks were established across the UK, ranging from the Highlands and Islands to Surrey, Gwynedd to Gloucestershire. InterAct Networks provided the initial facilitation training to the networks, and supported them in establishing ongoing learning platforms. We also helped to network the networks, sharing resources and insights across the UK. Although some networks (e.g. Gwynedd) continue today, others found the lack of a 'lead' organisation meant that the network eventually lost direction.

In 2006, following a review of the effectiveness of the geographical networks, InterAct Networks began working with clients to build their organisational capacity to engage with stakeholders (including communities and the public) in decision making.  This work included designing and delivering training (and other learning interventions), as well as setting up and supporting internal networks of engagement mentors and facilitators.  We have since worked with the Countryside Council for Wales, the UK Sustainable Development Commission, Defra, DECC (via Sciencewise-ERC see p10), Natural England and primarily the Environment Agency in England and Wales.

Through our work with these organisations InterAct Networks led the field in:

  • diagnostics

  • guidance

  • tools and materials

  • new forms of organisational learning.

After Richard and Jeff left, Penny Walker joined Lindsey and Lynn as a partner in 2011, and InterAct Networks became limited company in 2012.  In 2014, Lynn Wetenhall retired as a Director.  

Some insights into building organisational capacity

Through our work with clients, especially the Environment Agency, we have learnt a lot about what works if you want to build an organisation's capacity to engage stakeholders and to collaborate.  There is, of course, much more than can be summarised here.  Here are just five key insights:

  • Tailor the intervention to the part of the organisation you are working with.
  • For strategic, conceptual 'content', classroom training can rarely do more than raise awareness.
  • Use trainers who are practitioners.
  • Begin with the change you want to see.
  • Learning interventions are only a small part of building capacity.

Tailor the intervention

An organisation which wants to improve its engagement with stakeholders and the public in the development and delivery of public policy needs capacity at organisational, team and individual levels.

This diagram, originated by Jeff Bishop, shows a cross-organisational framework, helping you to understand the levels and their roles (vision and direction; process management; delivery).  If capacity building remains in the process management and delivery zones, stakeholder and public engagement will be limited to pockets of good practice. 

Classroom training will raise awareness of tools

There are half a dozen brilliant tools, frameworks and concepts which are enormously helpful in planning and delivering stakeholder and public engagement.  Classroom training (and online self-guided learning) can do the job of raising awareness of these.  But translating knowledge into lived practice - which is the goal - needs ongoing on-the-job interventions like mentoring, team learning or action learning sets.  Modelling by someone who knows how to use the tools, support in using them - however inexpertly at first - and reinforcement of their usefulness.  Reflection on how they were used and the impact they had. 

Use trainers who are practitioners

People who are experienced and skillful in planning and delivering stakeholder and public engagement, and who are also experienced and skillful in designing and delivering learning interventions, make absolutely the best capacity-builders. They have credibility and a wealth of examples, they understand why the frameworks or skills which are being taught are so powerful. They understand from practice how they can be flexed and when it's a bad idea to move away from the ideal. We were enormously privileged to have a great team of practitioner-trainers to work with as part of the wider InterAct Networks family.

Begin with the change you want to see

The way to identify the "learning intervention" needed, is to begin by asking "what does the organisation need to do differently, or more of, to achieve its goals?", focusing on whatever the key challenge is that the capacity building needs to address.  Once that is clear (and it may take a 'commissioning group' or quite a lot of participative research to answer that question), ask "what do (which) people need to do differently, or more of?".  Having identified a target group of people, and the improvements they need to make, ask "what do these people need to learn (knowledge, skills) in order to make those improvements?".  At this stage, it's also useful to ask what else they need to help them make the improvements (permission, budget, resources, changes to policies etc). Finally, ask "what are the most effective learning interventions to build that knowledge and those skills for these people?".  Classroom training is only one solution, and often not the best one. 

Learning interventions are (only) part of the story

Sometimes the capacity that needs building is skills and knowledge - things you can learn. So learning interventions (training, coaching, mentoring etc) are appropriate responses. Sometimes the capacity "gap" is about incentives, policies, processes or less tangible cultural things.  In which case other interventions will be needed.  The change journey needs exquisite awareness of what 'good' looks like, what people are doing and the impact it's having, what the progress and stuckness is.  Being able to share observations and insights as a team (made up of both clients and consultants) is invaluable.

The most useful concepts and frameworks

Over the years, some concepts and frameworks emerged as the most useful in helping people to see stakeholder engagement, collaboration and participation in a new light and turn that enlightenment into a practical approach.

I've blogged about some of these elsewhere on this site: follow the links.

  • What's up for grabs?  What's fixed, open or negotiable.
  • Asking questions in order to uncover latent consensus - the PIN concept.
  • How much engagement? Depending on the context for your decision, project or programme, different intensities of engagement are appropriate.  This tool helps you decide.
  • Is collaboration appropriate for this desired outcome? This matrix takes the 'outcome' that you want to achieve as a starting point, and helps you see whether collaborating with others will help you achieve it.
  • Engagement aims: transmit, receive and collaborate.  Sometimes known as the Public Engagement Triangle, this way of understanding "engagement aims" was developed originally by Lindsey Colbourne as part of her work with the Sciencewise-ERC, for the Science for All Follow Up Group.
  • Who shall we engage and how intensely? (stakeholder identification and mapping)

Three-day facilitation training

As part of this wider suite of strategic and skills-based capacity building, InterAct Networks ran dozens of three-day facilitation skills training courses and helped the Environment Agency to set up an internal facilitator network so that quasi-third parties can facilitate meetings as part of public and stakeholder engagement.  The facilitator network often works with external independent facilitators, contracted by the Environment Agency for bigger, more complex or higher-conflict work. This facilitation course is now under the stewardship of 3KQ.

More reports and resources

Here are some other reports and resources developed by the InterAct Networks team, sometimes while wearing other hats.

Evaluation of the use of Working with Others - Building Trust for the Shaldon Flood Risk Project, Straw E. and Colbourne, L., March 2009.

Departmental Dialogue Index - developed by Lindsey Colbourne for Sciencewise.

Doing an organisational stocktake.

Organisational Learning and Change for Public Engagement, Colbourne, L., 2010, for NCCPE and The Science for All group, as part of The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)’ Science and Society programme.

Mainstreaming collaboration with communities and stakeholders for FCERM, Colbourne, L., 2009 for Defra and the Environment Agency.

Thank you for a wonderful ride

In 2015, Lindsey and Penny decided to close the company, in order to pursue other interests.  Lindsey's amazing art work can be seen here.  Penny continues to help clients get better at stakeholder engagement, including through being an Associate of 3KQ, which has taken ownership of the core facilitation training course that InterAct Networks developed and has honed over the years. The Environment Agency continues to espouse its "Working with Others" approach, with great guidance and passion from Dr. Cath Brooks and others. Colleagues and collaborators in the work with the Environment Agency included Involve and Collingwood Environmental Planning, as well as Helena Poldervaart who led on a range of Effective Conversations courses. We hope that we have left a legacy of hundreds of people who understand and are committed to asking great questions and listening really well to the communities and interests they serve, for the good of us all.

 

There are phases, in collaboration

One of the useful analytical tools which we've been using in training recently, is the idea of there being phases in collaborative working.  This diagram looks particularly at the long, slow, messy early stages where progress can be faltering. 

Learning sets, debriefing groups: learning from doing

I've been helping organisations learn how to collaborate better.  One of my clients was interested in boosting their organisation's ability to keep learning from the real-life experiences of the people who I'd trained.

We talked about setting up groups where people could talk about their experiences - good and bad - and reflect together to draw out the learning.  This got me thinking about practical and pragmatic ways to describe and run learning sets.

Action learning sets

An action learning set is – in its purest form – a group of people who come together regularly (say once a month) for a chunk of time (perhaps a full day, depending on group size) to learn from each other’s experiences.  Characteristics of an action learning set include:

  • People have some kind of work-related challenge in common (e.g. they are all health care workers, or all environmental managers, or they all help catalyse collaboration) but are not necessarily all working for the same organisation or doing the same job.
  • The conversations in the 'set' meetings are structured in a disciplined way: each person gets a share of time (e.g. an hour) to explain a particular challenge or experience, and when they have done so the others ask them questions about it which are intended to illuminate the situation. If the person wants, they can also ask for advice or information which might help them, but advice and information shouldn’t be given unless requested.  Then the next person gets to share their challenge (which may be completely different) and this continues until everyone has had a turn or until the time has been used up (the group can decide for itself how it wants to allocate time).
  • Sometimes, the set will then discuss the common themes or patterns in the challenges, identifying things that they want to pay particular attention to or experiment with in their work.  These can then be talked about as part of the sharing and questioning in the next meeting of the set.
  • So the learning comes not from an expert bringing new information or insight, but from the members of the set sharing their experiences and reflecting together.  The ‘action’ bit comes from the commitment to actively experiment with different ways of doing their day job between meetings of the set.
  • Classically, an action learning set will have a facilitator whose job is to help people get to grips with the method and then to help the group stick to the method.

If you want to learn a little bit more about action learning sets, there's a great briefing here, from BOND who do a great job building capacity in UK-based development NGOs.

A debriefing group

A different approach which has some of the same benefits might be a ‘debriefing group’. This is not a recognised ‘thing’ in the same way that an action learning set it.  I’ve made the term up!   This particular client organisation is global, so getting people together face to face is a big deal. Even finding a suitable time for a telecon that works for all time zones is a challenge. So I came up with this idea:

  • A regular slot, say monthly, for a telecon or other virtual meeting.
  • The meeting would last for an hour, give or take.
  • The times would vary so that over the course of a year, everyone around the world has access to some timeslots which are convenient for them.
  • One person volunteers to be in the spotlight for each meeting. They may have completed a successful piece of work, or indeed they may be stuck at the start or part-way through.
  • They tell their story, good and bad, and draw out what they think the unresolved dilemmas or key learning points are.
  • The rest of the group then get to ask questions – both for their own curiosity / clarification, and to help illuminate the situation.  The volunteer responds.
  • As with the action learning set, if the volunteer requests it, the group can also offer information and suggestions.
  • People could choose to make notes of the key points for wider sharing afterwards, but this needs to be done in a careful way so as to not affect the essentially trusting and open space for the free discussion and learning to emerge.
  • Likewise, people need to know that they won’t be judged or evaluated from these meetings – they are safe spaces where they can explore freely and share failures as well as a successes.
  • Someone would need to organise each meeting (fix the time, invite people, send round reminders and joining instructions, identify the volunteer and help them understand the purpose / brief, and manage the conversation). This could be one person or a small team, and once people understand the process it could be a different person or team each time.

For peer learning, not for making decisions

Neither approach is a ‘decision making’ forum, and neither approach is about developing case studies: they are focused on the immediate learning of the people who are in the conversation, and the insight and learning comes from what the people in the group already know (even if they don’t realise that they know it). In that sense they are 100% tailored to the learners’ needs and they are also incredibly flexible and responsive to the challenges and circumstances that unfold over time.

 

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.

Second characteristic: decisions are shared

When one organisation is collaborating with another, both are doing so because they have chosen to. Which means, ultimately, that either collaborating party can walk away if the collaboration is no longer meeting their needs.

The kinds of things shared decisions need to be made about

Walking away might happen because the outcomes which are being worked towards (the what) are just not compelling enough.  Or it might be because the process of how the collaboration is working (high level governance, day-to-day secretariat work, speed and complexity of decision-making) doesn't suit them.  Or it might be because the other collaborators (the who) make too uneasy a team - perhaps there's a fundamental clash of values or identity.

What this tells you, then, is that decisions about these three threads (the what, the who and the how) are shared.  No one party can impose their preference on the other(s).

So sometimes there's a need to compromise, if the prize is worth it

Some outcomes that one organisation wants to achieve may depend on it helping others to deliver their own outcomes first or at the same time (the what).  This may mean that some collaborative work doesn’t easily fit into the first organisation’s priorities, processes and systems.  This is the main reason why collaboration depends on great internal working too - see future post.

You can't force collaboration

Organisations which the initiators or collaborators would really like to involve, can decline to get involved (the who).  You may need to go into persuasion and listening mode, asking "what would it take, for your organisation to collaborate?" or "what do you want to achieve, that this emerging work could help take forward?" or "how would it need to be organised and run, for your organisation to be happy with getting involved?"

Helping your team share decisions

The big challenge in sharing decisions is knowing how much decision-making authority you have within your own organisation.  Let me explain why.  There will almost certainly be some tension between what your organisation wants and what your collaborators want.  Even if it's just over process matters like how far in advance to send around pre-meeting reading, or whether to have formal Terms of Reference for a steering group.  So the people 'in the room' doing the negotiating need to be clear about their organisation's ‘bottom lines’ and preferences, and clear about their own mandate to commit it to things (including things which don’t directly deliver their own organisation's objectives).

You or your team need to be confident that the people the report to are happy with the ways things are progressing.

And if you or your team are involved in  working out the process (e.g. planning wider stakeholder engagement, planning and running meetings, project planning), they need to do this in conjunction with collaborators’ organisations.

If your organisation has rigid annual planning and budget-setting processes, there may be a tension because it will not be in control of the pace that the collaboration moves at, so there will be quite a lot of uncertainty to take into account when doing that internal planning and budgeting.

Keep an eye out for the impact of your own internal systems such as authorisation or reporting procedures - are they getting in the way of collaborative work?  Who do you need to talk to, to sort this out?

Next time: it depends on great relationships.

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.

 

Deadlines

Do deadlines help a group reach consensus? Or do they get in the way? Yesterday brought the news that the latest round of talks in the peace process in Northern Ireland had broke up without agreement, the deadline having passed.  There's a report from the BBC here.

I make no comment on the content of the talks, but I am interested in the process.  Why was this particular deadline set?  And do deadlines help by providing a sense of jeopardy - a time when the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement comes into play?  Or by restricting the time for exploration and low-anxiety creativity, do they get in the way of positive consensus?

Deadlines for discussion and agreement may be tied to objective events in the real world:  mother and midwife need to agree how to manage labour before it happens.  They may be tied to objective but less predictable events: the Environment Agency and the stakeholders discussing details of the Medmerry Managed realignment flood defence scheme wanted to get it built in time to protect the area from the higher risk of winter storms and flooding.  Or they may be tied to other events which are choices rather than unstoppable events, but ones where choosing not to meet the deadline would have very large consequences:  the Environment Agency and the Olympic Delivery Authority needed to agree how to handle drainage and water quality from the Stratford Olympic site in time for the games to happen in 2012.

I may be missing something, but the Haass talks don't seem to have any of these justifiable external pressures.  So why the deadline?

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.

 

 

How can I get them to trust me?

Trust is essential to collaborative work and makes all kinds of stakeholder engagement more fruitful.  Clients often have 'increased trust' as an engagement objective.  But how do you get someone to trust you?

Should they?

My first response is to challenge back: should people trust you?  Are you entering this collaboration or engagement process in good faith?  Do you have some motives or aims which are hidden or being spun?  Do some people in your team see consultation and participation as just more sophisticated ways of persuading people to agree with what you've already made up your mind about?  Or are you genuinely open to changing things as a result of hearing others' views?  Is the team clear about what's up for grabs?

It's an ethical no-brainer: don't ask people to trust you if they shouldn't!

Earn trust

Assuming you do, hand on heart, deserve trust, then the best way to get people to trust you is to be trustworthy.

Do what you say you're going to do. Don't commit to things that you can't deliver.

Don't bad-mouth others - hearing you talk about someone one way in public and another in a more private setting will make people wonder what you say about them when they're not around.

Trust them

The other side of the coin is to be trusting.  Show your vulnerability.  Share information instead of keeping it close.  Be open about your needs and constraints, the pressures on you and the things that you find hard.  If you need to give bad news, do so clearly and with empathy.

Give it time

Long-term relationships require investment of time and effort.  Building trust (or losing it) happens over time, as people see how you react and behave in different situations.

Be worthy of people's trust, and trust them.

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.

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!