Many organisations in the sustainability field do their best system-changing work when they are collaborating. 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. This dual role causes problems. Here’s how to fix them.
I'm excited about ideas for peer learning workshops that have been bubbling away in my head and are beginning to take shape.
Focused, coachy, peer learning
I want to bring together sustainability people of various kinds, to be able to talk with each other about their challenges and ideas in a more expansive and easeful way than a conference allows.
People really benefit from being able to think aloud in coaching conversations. I've seen the transformations that can happen when supportive challenge prompts a new way of looking at things.
We also get so much from comparing our own experiences with peers: finding the common threads in individual contexts, exploring ideas about ways forward.
I’d like to combine these things by making the peer learning available in smaller groups and smaller chunks, where the atmosphere is more like coaching.
What's the idea?
The idea is to run half-day workshops, with between 6 and 10 people at each event. The intention is that they are safe and supporting spaces, where people can talk freely. We'll meet in spaces that are relaxed, creative, private, energising and feel good to be in. (More comfortable than the stone steps in the picture.)
Each workshop would have a theme, to help focus the conversations and make sure people who come along have enough in common for those conversations to be highly productive.
I'd run a few, on different themes, and people can come to one, some or all of them. They don't have to come to them all, so the mix of people will be different for each workshop.
I'd charge fees, probably tiered pricing so that it's affordable for individuals and smaller not-for-profits, but commercial prices for bigger and for-profit organisations.
The content of each workshop will come from the participants, rather than me: my role is to facilitate the conversations, rather than to teach or train people.
Choices, dilemmas, testing
When I've tested this idea with a few people, many have said that the success of the workshops will depend on who else is there: people with experience, insight, credibility. People they feel able to trust, before they commit to booking. I think this is useful feedback.
On the other hand, I'm unsure about the best way to ensure this. Is it enough to include a description of "who these workshops are for" and leave it to people to decide for themselves? Or should I set up an application process of some kind: asking people who apply to include a short explanation of who they are, what their role and experience is, and why they want to come along.
If I set up an 'application' process, will that be off-putting to the naturally modest? Too cumbersome? Adding extra steps (apply, wait, get place confirmed, then pay...) feels risky: at each step, the pool of likely participants will get smaller. Will this make the workshops unviable? Who am I to choose, anyway?
Another option is to make the workshops 'by invitation' with people having the option of requesting an invitation for their friends, peers, colleagues - or even themselves. This is what I'm leaning towards at the moment, based on gut feel.
Will this increase people's confidence in the workshops - that not just anyone gets a place, their peers will provide quality reflections and be people worth meeting? Will it make those people who do get an invitation feel special, better about themselves?
And will I really turn down anyone who asks for an invitation? What will they feel?
I've set up a survey to gather views on this, as well as on the topics that will be most interesting to people. Please let me know here where's there a short survey. Discounts and prizes available!
How it feels to experiment
I'm not a natural entrepreneur. Some people love to experiment and learn from failure. Fail faster. Fail cheaper. Intellectually I'm committed to experimenting with these workshops: testing out ideas about formats, marketing, pricing, venues, topic focus vs emergence, length, the amount of 'taught' content vs 'created' content and so on.
Emotionally: not so much. I want to get everything right before I start (which is why it's taken me about six months to even get to this stage). I'm getting great support from lots of people, and boy do I need it. Even sitting here, I can feel the prickly, clammy, cold physical manifestations of the fear of failure.
I need to move through the fear and into the phase of actually running some test workshops. I know they'll be great. I can see the smiles, feel the warmth, visualise the kind of room we're meeting in and the I already have the design and process clear. I have a shelf of simple but beautiful props in my office. I am 100% confident about the events themselves, it's the communications and administration of the marketing that freaks me out.
Learning from the learning
So already I'm learning. About myself, about what people say they need, about how venues can be welcoming or off-putting, about how generous people are with their time and feedback.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.)
‘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”.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
"Success may be different..." is perhaps the most exciting of the challenges for me, because I have seen such different reactions to it.
Sixth of six
This post is the final one in a series of six, covering the six characteristic challenges of collaborative working.
Success may look different to what you expected
The sixth characteristic challenge is that you just don't know what you're going to end up with. And it would be a mistake to try to predict it too precisely, which makes project planners and budget holders in some kinds of organisations very twitchy indeed.
The thing is, that even when you can see the potential for collaborative advantage, this may be quite uncertain, speculative, indirect or long-term. Because it depends on finding willing and able collaborators who want the same (or complementary) outcomes. And as we have seen in the other characteristic challenges decisions are shared. Which means that you can't predict, let alone control, what the successful collaboration will look like.
This applies to the what, the how and the who.
An open mind, but not an empty mind
Until you've reached agreement with at least one other organisation or group about what you want to achieve, you don't know what you'll agree on. Until you've decided together how to work together, you don't know how you'll work together. And until you've agreed who to work with - and they've agree to work with you and each other - you won't know who you'll end up working with. Of course, have some intelligent and well-informed guesses or working assumptions - don't have an empty mind. But avoid being trapped by your research and early planning - maintain an open mind.
Collaboration is an intrinsically ‘messy’ and uncertain process as the outcomes and solutions tend to shift in the light of unfolding events and opportunities. Even once you have agreed what you want to achieve, you will still need to share decision-making about what the action is you'll take together to achieve the outcomes you want.
Sounds a bit risky....
Some organisations just hate this. Their internal culture is one of clear prioritisation of resources, delivering against targets, husbanding their budgets carefully and not having a penny to spare for things which can't be guaranteed to deliver. They won't release funds until the deliverables have been planned in. They see the staff time invested in the speculative early stages of collaboration as unjustifiable, when there are urgent priorities which are part of the day-job waiting to be completed. While this is understandable - especially if public money is being spent under political scrutiny - it is very problematic when much bigger gains might be made through collaborating.
Organisations with this kind of culture need to judge the level of resources to put into working collaboratively on a particular outcome, and weigh against competing demands on staff time and budgets.
Can't we just make them collaborate?
However eager for collaboration we may be, there will be situations where there just aren’t suitable organisations to collaborate with. For cultures where wielding power (hierarchical, financial or regulatory) is deeply embedded, this inability to just make others do what you want can be exasperating! When your senior people see collaboration as the answer, they may get very grumpy if at the quarterly reporting meeting you say "well, we tried, but at the moment no-one else wants to achieve what we want to achieve".
Managers need to accept – and to convey to their staff - that you cannot make people collaborate. The team may need to learn to see ‘no thanks’ as a positive outcome: framed as “we agreed with them not to go any further on this”, rather than “that was a failure”.
And keep open to the possibility that you may need to use other ways to achieve the outcomes you want – for example through regulation (if you are a policy-maker or regulator) or incentives – if collaboration does not bear fruit.
A challenge? No, it's the whole point!
And then there are some organisations and sectors for whom the uncertainty inherent in collaboration is exactly the point. Working with researchers and academics at Sheffield University's exciting Crucible collaboration workshop recently, there were a few baffled looks when I introduced this characteristic challenge. People didn't see it negatively at all. Not knowing in advance what you're going to find out and how you're going to go about it is precisely the reason why collaboration is interesting and worthwhile for these people.
What can you do?
If you are choosing a team to work collaboratively, look for people with flexibility and who are happy to live with rapid change and sudden uncertainty.
Progress is unpredictable – so don’t expect staff to predict it. Managers need to give people authority, amidst this uncertainty, to make medium-term plans. This includes managing the tension which arises between setting budgets or spending plans with not knowing when the costs of work will become clear.
So there we have it: the six characteristic challenges of collaborative working. I'd love to hear about any more, and about your own experience of making collaboration work despite - or even because of - these characteristics.
It's rarely a way of getting things done faster that you would alone! If you are looking to collaboration to solve your speed problem, then you need to seek other solutions.
Fifth of six
This post is the fifth in a series of six, covering the six characteristic challenges of collaborative working.
Speculate to accumulate
Collaboration needs up-front investment in understanding the history, context and relationships between potential collaborators. And once that first phase is over and there's an eager collaborator willing to play, it takes time to explore possible win-wins and work through the details of how you'll work together. Let alone the time to agree on the action you will take together which moves you all towards the agreed outcomes.
The diagram of the loops of collaboration in this post is an attempt to put this into images.
One of my favourite aphorisms, supplied by the wonderful Elspeth Donovan, is that you have to go slow to go fast. Keep this in mind to reassure yourself and your colleagues when the pace of progress is making you twitchy.
What takes the time?
In collaboration, you can't skimp on the time it takes to
- build relationships
- understand the landscape of collaboration
- understand the culture of potential collaborators
- explore possible win-wins
- establish ways of working (formal and informal).
And there are two kinds of time taken up: the time budget (how many hours you have available to work on it) and the calendar time (how much time will elapse before the various milestone decisions or actions occur).
Speaking of the time budget, it takes real people's real time to convene, manage or even just play an active role in a collaboration. This time doesn't need to all come from the initiating organisation: in fact, it's a mistake if it does, because it leads to unhelpful assumptions about whose responsibility it is to keep the show on the road.
Leaders - you can help
If you lead a team who need to initiate and take an active part in collaboration, here are some tips, developed with facilitator extraordinaire Andrew Acland as part of our work with the Environment Agency :
- Give staff time to explore the ‘landscape’ and understand the history
- Be patient – don’t expect delivery, or even significant decisions, too soon.
- Ensure internal reporting processes, deadlines, targets and KPIs are compatible with this reality. You may need to explain this to senior managers, defending the approach and the time it is taking. There is a great guide to evaluating collaboration (or 'collective impact' in the terminology of the Collective Impact Forum), which stresses the different things you may need to look for during the early stages (mostly process and proxies) than the delivery phase (deliverables, outputs, outcomes, impacts).
- Communicate existing work and establish new ‘quick wins’ to maintain interest, support and momentum.
- Be prepared to stay involved and actively engaged after decisions have been made or policies signed off. Don’t take up this way of working unless you see it as a long-term commitment.
- Managers need to have detailed understanding of the organisational, legal and policy context of any collaborative work to be able to make sense of the reality of what their staff will need to do.
- This might mean some ‘front loading’ of manager time in early stages, so they are sufficiently briefed to both lead and support staff. This resource needs to come from somewhere.
- This way of working needs to be planned in, budgeted for and resourced, even if another organisation is ‘convening’ the partnership or collaborative planning process; most collaboration requires work between meetings.
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.
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).
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.
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.
When you're collaborating, there are six characteristic challenges you're bound to come up against. This is the third.
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.
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.
- it isn't easy
- decisions are shared
- it depends on great relationships
- it requires high-quality internal working too
- it's a marathon not a sprint
- success may look different from what you expected
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
The trouble with being an expert is that you are expected to come up with solutions really fast. Or you think you are. Doubly so if you're an advocate or a campaigner. You can be tripped up by your own assumptions about your role, and stumble into taking a position much too early. And once you've taken a position, it feels hard to climb down from it and explore other options.
Which can be a big mistake.
Don't be an expert, yet
Pretty much every project you'll ever work on has more than one noble aim (or, at least, more than one legitimate aim). On time, on budget. For people, profit and planet. Truth and beauty.
Not much point designing the shiniest, coolest, sexiest thing that can't be built. Or the safest, most ethical, handcrafted whoosit that's too expensive for anyone to buy. Or running an organic, fair trade eco-retreat which can only be reached by helicopter.
If a critical variable needs to 'lose' in order that the thing you have committed yourself to can 'win', you've set it up wrong.
Why set it up as a zero-sum game, when it could be that there's a win-win solution enabling everyone to get everything they want? (I could tell you about boogli fruit, but once again I'd have to kill you.)
Not everything is a fight
If you frame it as a fight, you'll get a fight. If you frame it as a complex problem with a mutually-beneficial solution that hasn't been found yet - you may just get it.
But how can you help the conversation be a dialogue rather than a gun-fight?
You need to stay in that uncomfortable place of not knowing. Listen well. Ask questions.
Above all, maintain an attitude of respect, curiosity and trust.
Want to explore further?
I'll be talking more about this at #DareConf Mini on 20th January - still time to join me and some awesome speakers.
And here's a New Year's gift to help: £100 off if you use code PENNY when booking.
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?
Picture the scene: the room, which you haven't been able to check out before, has a low ceiling, tiny windows that somehow don't manage to let in much light, and is decorated in shades of brown and purple. There are uplighters on the walls, which have large strategically placed paintings screwed to them. And, of course, you have been told that under no circumstances can blu-tack be used on the rough-textured wallpaper.