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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
Sorry I haven't been over at this blog properly for a while: I've been busy blogging elsewhere to tell people about Working Collaboratively. Here's a round-up of the other places where I've been writing.
Guardian Sustainable Business Collaborating can be frustrating but it isn't about sublimating your organisation's goals – it's about discovering common ground...
Business Green It's time for business to gang up on the barriers to change. Businesses need to collaborate with NGOs, communities and the public sector to make serious change happen... (To read this one, you will need to be a Business Green subscriber or register for a free trial.)
Forum for the Future / Green Futures Blog Shipping leaders look for common ground. Change in the shipping system will depend on time, trust and an independent third party...
Defra's SD Scene Newsletter Who might collaborate with you? The book contains frameworks, tools and interviews with people who have collaborated to achieve sustainable development outcomes, including from one of Defra’s recent Catchment Based Approach pilots to improve river health and water quality.
CSR Wire Finding the Dots: Why Collaborate When We Have Nothing In Common? When the problem is intractable, systemic and locked-in, it’s the very people you think you are in competition with who you need to listen to with the closest attention and the most open mind.
I've enjoyed the challenge of finding new angles on the same basic messages. I hope you enjoy reading them.
Mixed feelings on seeing that the book is now available on Amazon, too. You can get it as an ebook or paperback. I'm not sure how good Amazon's record is in collaborating for sustainable development goals... But at least there's a review function so people could share their thoughts on this paradox through that forum.
One of the points that I end up stressing in collaboration training, and try to get across in the book, is the iterative nature of collaboration. Working Collaboratively is organised around three 'threads': what, who and how. 'What' is the compelling outcome you want to achieve, 'who' are the collaborators and 'how' is your process or ways of working. And you could think of these three threads being plaited together, because they are inseparable and they continue to need attention in parallel.
The 'over and over again' iteration happens for all three threads. As you explore shared or complementary outcomes, potential collaborators get closer or move away. As it becomes clearer who the collaborators will be, ways of working which suit them emerge or need to be thrashed out. As process develops, greater honesty and trust enables people to understand better what they can achieve together.
So these three plaited threads (who, what, how) loop the loop as you go forwards - being reviewed and changed.
We explored putting in a graphic to illustrate this, but my idea couldn't be transferred to an image successfully. My very poor sketch will have to suffice.
Why does this matter?
Exploratory, tentative and above all slow progress can be exasperating not just for the collaborators but for their managers or constituencies. What's going on? Why aren't there any decisions yet? What are you spending all this time on, with so little to show for it? The investment in having what feels like the same conversation over and over again is essential. Collaborators need to appreciate that, and so do the people they report to.
“Working Collaboratively: A Practical Guide to Achieving More” Use PWP15 for 15% discount.
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.
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...
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.
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.
So you've decided that the meeting or workshop you have in mind needs an independent, professional facilitator. You call them up and guess what? They start asking all these awkward questions. What's that about?
Facilitators don't just turn up and facilitate
Facilitated meetings are increasingly popular, and many teams and project groups understand the benefits of having their workshop facilitated. More and more organisations are also wanting to have meaningful, productive conversations with stakeholders, perhaps even deciding things together and collaborating. Facilitated workshops can be a great way of moving this kind of thing forward. But facilitators don't just turn up and facilitate. So what are the key things a facilitator will want to know, when they're trying to understand the system, before the big day itself?
Start with the ends
Your facilitator will always begin with the purpose or objectives - why is the meeting being held? What do you want to be different, after the meeting? This could be a difference in the information that people have (content), new agreements or decisions (process), or it could be that what is needed is a shift in the way people see each other (relationships) - or some of each of these things.
Context and history
Once the facilitator is confident that you are clear about the purpose (and this could take some time - the facilitator should persist!), then the facilitator will want to understand the context, and the people.
Context includes the internal context - what has you organisation done up to now, what other processes or history have led up to this workshop? It also includes the external context - what in the outside world is going to have an impact on the people in the room and the topic they are working on?
Often, the one thing that has been fixed before the facilitator gets a look in is the people who have been invited. But are they the right people to achieve the objectives? Have some important oilers or spoilers, information holders or information needers been left out? And do they understand clearly what the objectives of the meeting are?
Getting the right people in the room (and making arrangements to involve people who need to take part, but can't actually be there on the day) is just part of it. What do the people need to know, in order to play an effective part in the meeting? And how far ahead does this information need to be circulated? Apart from passively receiving information, what information, views or suggestions can be gathered from participants before the meeting, to get people thinking in advance and save time for interaction and creative discussion on the day? What questions can be gathered (and answered) in advance?
What do the participants want out of the meeting? If this is very different to what the client or sponsor wants, then this gap of expectations needs to be positively managed.
When and where?
Apart from the invitation list, the other things which are usually fixed before the facilitator is brought in, and which they may challenge, with justification, are the date and the venue.
The date needs to be far enough away to ensure that participants get adequate notice, and the facilitator, client team and participants get adequate preparation time.
The venue needs to be suitable for the event - and for a facilitated meeting, traditional conference venues may not be. Inflexible room layout, a ban on blu-tack, rigid refreshment times - all of these make a venue hard to use, however handy it may be for the golf course. There's more on venues here.
Sometimes, of course, the date, venue and participant list are unchangeable, whatever the facilitator would like, and have to be taken as fixed points to be designed around. So what about the overall meeting design? The facilitator will want to understand any 'inputs' to the meeting, and where they have come from. They'll want to talk about the kind of atmosphere which will be most helpful, and about any fixed points in the agenda (like a speech by the Chief Exec), and how these can be used most positively.
A design for the meeting will be produced, and circulated to key people (the client, maybe a selection of participants), and amended in light of their comments. But the facilitator will always want to retain some flexibility, to respond to what happens 'in the room'.
And after the meeting? The 'after' should be well planned too - what kind of report or record is needed, and will there be different reports for different groups of people? This will have an impact on the way the meeting is recorded as it goes along - e.g. on flip chart paper, on display for all to see and for people to correct at the time. If there are specific 'products' from the meeting (agreements, action points, priorities, principles or statements of some kind, options or proposals), what is going to happen to them next?
And how will the client, facilitator and participants give and receive feedback about how the process worked?
All these things will need to be thought about early on - clients should expect their facilitators to ask about them all - and to help them work out the answers!
So to sum up, the facilitator will potentially challenge the client team about:
• Objectives • Context • Participants • Space • On-the-day process • Follow-up process
If you'd like to download a version of this, click here.
"Who will make sure it doesn't fall over?"
This was a question posed by someone in a workshop I facilitated, which brought together stakeholders (potential collaborators) who shared an interest in a water catchment.
It was a good question. In a collaboration, where equality between organisations is a value - and the pragmatic as well as philosophical truth is that everyone is only involved because they choose to be - what constitutes leadership? How do you avoid no-one taking responsibility because everyone is sharing responsibility?
If the collaboration stops moving forwards, like a bicycle it will be in danger of falling over. Who will step forward to right it again, give it a push and help it regain momentum?
Luxurious reading time
I've been doing some reading, in preparating for writing a slim volume on collaboration for the lovely people over at DōSustainability. (Update: published July 2013.) It's been rather lovely to browse the internet, following my nose from reference to reference. I found some great academic papers, including "Collaborative Governance in Theory and Practice" by Chris Ansell and Alison Gash. This paper is based on a review of 137 case studies, and draws out what the authors call 'critical variables' which influence the success of attempts at collaborative governance.
It's worth just pausing to notice that this paper focuses on 'collaborative governance', which you could characterise as when stakeholders come together to make decisions about what some other organisation is going to do (e.g. agree a management plan for a nature reserve ), to contrast it with other kinds of collaboration where the stakeholders who choose to collaborate are making decisions about what they themselves will do, to further the common or complementary aims of the collaboration (e.g. the emerging work of Tasting the Future).
Leadership as a critical variable
Ansell and Gash identify leadership as one of these critical variables. They say:
"Although 'unassisted' negotiations are sometimes possible, the literature overwhelmingly finds that facilitative leadership is important for bringing stakeholders together and getting them to engage each other in a collaborative spirit."
What kind of person can provide this facilitative leadership? Do they have to be disinterested, in the manner of an agenda-neutral facilitator? Or do they have to be a figure with credibility and power within the system, to provide a sense of agency to the collaboration?
Interestingly, Ansell and Gash think both are needed, depending on whether power is distributed relatively equally or relatively unequally among the potential collaborators. It's worth quoting at some length here:
"Where conflict is high and trust is low, but power distribution is relatively equal and stakeholders have an incentive to participate, then collaborative governance can successfully proceed by relying on the services of an honest broker that the respective stakeholders accept and trust."
This honest broker will pay attention to process and remain 'above the fray' - a facilitator or mediator.
"Where power distribution is more asymmetric or incentives to participate are weak or asymmetric, then collaborative governance is more likely to succeed if there is a strong "organic" leader who commands the respect and trust of the various stakeholders at the outset of the process."
An organic leader emerges from among the stakeholders, and my reading of the paper suggests that their strength may come from the power and credibility of their organisation as well as personal qualities like technical knowledge, charisma and so on.
While you can buy in a neutral facilitator (if you have the resource to do so), you cannot invent a trusted, powerful 'organic' leader if they are not already in the system. Ansell and Gash note "an implication of this contingency is that the possibility for effective collaboration may be seriously constrained by a lack of leadership."
Policy framework for collaboration
I'm also interested in this right now, because of my involvement in the piloting of the Catchment Based Approach. I have been supporting people both as a facilitator (honest broker) and by building the capacity of staff at the Environment Agency to work collaboratively and 'host' or 'lead' collaborative work in some of the pilot catchments. The former role has been mainly with Dialogue by Design, and latter with InterAct Networks.
One of the things that has been explored in these pilots, is what the differences are when the collaboration is hosted by the Environment Agency, and when it is hosted by another organisation, as in for example Your Tidal Thames or the Brent Catchment Partnership.
There was a well-attended conference on February 14th, where preliminary results were shared and Defra officials talked about what may happen next. The policy framework which Defra is due to set out in the Spring of 2013 will have important implications for where the facilitative leadership comes from.
One of the phrases used in Defra's presentation was 'independent host' and another was 'facilitator'. It's not yet clear what Defra might mean by these two phrases. I immediately wondered: independent of what, or of whom? Might this point towards the more agenda-neutral facilitator, the honest broker? If so, how will this be resourced?
I am thoughtful about whether these catchments might have the characteristics where the Ansell and Gash's honest broker will succeed, or whether they have characteristics which indicate an organic leader is needed. Perhaps both would be useful, working together in a leadership team.
Those designing the policy framework could do worse than read this paper.
Have you come across Dō - 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.
On my bike, between meetings last week, I was passing St Paul's Cathedral in London so I wandered through the Occupy London Stock Exchange 'tent city'. Occupy LSX has divided opinion. At the meeting I was going to - a workshop of organisational development consultants, facilitators, coaches - some people made rather snide remarks about the likely impact of the first cold weather on the protesters, and about unoccupied tents. There's a retort here about the infamous thermal imaging scoop. Others were interested in and sympathetic to the dissatisfaction being expressed, but frustrated by the lack of a clear 'ask' or alternative from the occupiers.
Emergent, self-organising, asks and offers
What struck me, however, were the similarities between the occupy area itself, and some really good workshops I've experienced. There was plenty of space given aside for 'bike rack', 'grafitti wall' and other open ways of displaying messages, observations or questions. There was a timetable of sessions being offered in the Tent City University, and another board showing the times of consensus workshops and other process-related themes.
There was a 'wish list' board, where friendly passers-by could find out what the protesters need to help keep things going. Marker pens and other workshop-related paraphernalia are needed, as well as fire extinguishers and tinned sweetcorn.
I saw these as signs of an intentionally emergent phenomenon, with a different kind of economy running alongside the money economy. Others have blogged about the kinds of processes honed and commonly in use at this kind of event or camp, in particular if you're interested there's loads on the Rhizome blog.
Don't ask the question if you don't already know the answer?
I recognise the frustration expressed by some of my OD colleagues about the lack of clearly-expressed alternatives. This kind of conversation often occurs in groups that I facilitate: someone (often not in the room) has expressed a negative view about a policy, project or perspective. The people in the room feel defensive and attack the grumbler: "I bet they couldn't do any better" or "what do they expect us to do?". Some management styles and organisational cultures are fairly explicit that they don't want to hear about problems, only solutions. (Browsing here gives some glimpses of the gift and the shadow side of this approach.)
But I see something different here: a bottom-up process where people who share broadly the same intent and perspective, come together to explore and work out what they agree about, when looking at the problems with the current situation and the possible ways of making things better. The are participatively framing a view of the system as it is now, and what alternatives exist. This takes time, of course.
They are also, as far as I can tell from the outside, intentionally using consensus-based processes rather than conventional, top-down, leader-led or expert-led processes to organise this. Understandably frustrating for the news media which rely increasingly on short sound-bites and simple stories with two sides opposing each other. And it could get very interesting when the dialogue opens up to include those who have quite different perspectives on "what's really going on here" (for example mainstream economists, bankers, city workers).
The other thing I notice about this expectation of a ready-made coherent answer, is how similar it is to some group behaviour and the interventions made by inexperienced facilitators and coaches. When I am training facilitators, we look at when to intervene in a group's conversation, particularly when to use the intervention 'say what you see'. (This makes it sound very mechanical - of course it's not really like that!)
The trainee facilitator is observed practising, and then there is feedback and a debriefing conversation. Perhaps they chose not to intervene by telling the group what they observed. Sometimes during this feedback and debrief, a trainee will say something like "Yes, I noticed that, but I didn't want to say anything because I wasn't sure what to do about it or what it meant." They are assuming that you can only 'say what you see' if you know what it means and already have a suggestion about what to do about it.
But it also serves a group to say what you see, when you haven't a settled interpretation or clear proposal. (In fact, it is more powerful to allow the group to interpret, explain and propose together.) All questions are legitimate, especially those to which we don't (yet) know the answer. Ask them. Guess some answers. And this - for the time being - is what the occupy movement is doing.
The revolution will need marker pens
All this consensus-based work and open-space style process needs plenty of marker pens (permanent and white-board). So if you have a bulging facilitation toolkit and you're passing St Paul's, you know what to do!
Others have spotted these connections too. Listen to Peggy Holman talking about Occupy Wall Street on WGRNRadio, 9th January.
Many strands of work at the moment share a theme of putting in place the conditions for collaboration, and then waiting for something to happen.
I'm working with a colleague to train people from a large state body to pilot a collaborative approach to delivering one of their legal duties. There is pressure - from managers who don't quite get it - to have clear timetables and plans, for action to be delivered. But while you can call on hierarchy and processes to get the job done within your own organisation, you can't tell collaborators what to do. And collaboration relies on genuinely compelling outcomes which are shared by more than one party. You can't magic those out of the air. Our client organisation is in a position to be very clear about its own 'compelling outcomes' on the basis of a technical evidence base and legal duties. Whether there are potential collaborators out there who share any of those compelling outcomes is one of the early questions which needs exploration.
Another strand of work is a multi-stakeholder initiative (it's hard to know how to describe it) where the convenors are using all of the good practice they know to bring people together in a spirit of enquiry and good will, to discover whether there are collaborations waiting to emerge. Participants share a sense that the current system of which they are a part is not sustainable. They may not agree about the bits which are problematic or what a sustainable version would look like. Some of them are more natural bedfellows than others.
I'm in a curious ambiguous role as a participant in this initiative, and a 'friend of the process'. Do I have a role as supporting the convenors? Am I in a privileged observer role, able to spot what's getting in the way and then leaving them to do something about it? Or might I choose to take more ownership and responsibility, doing something about the process myself? (Let alone doing something about the system which we are there to change.)
Metaphors to understand the delicacy
I'm struggling to find metaphors to help explain the difference between project planning, and planning for (and then stewarding) collaborative emergence.
If you've looked after toddlers, you'll know the phenomenon of two children playing quite happily side by side, but with no interaction. No matter how skillfully the grown-up coaxes, if they aren't ready to play together it's not going to happen.
Perhaps it's also like growing particularly temperamental plants, like orchids. Sometimes it just doesn't work out.
Or internet dating. You set criteria and find lots of potential matches. Everything looks promising. And then the magic is either there or it's not. You can't make it happen through an act of will.
Or nursing a sick person: you intervene and you comfort. Sometimes it's enough to just sit next to their bed while their body gets on with doing something about the illness.
Collaboration for system change
All of these possible analogies imply someone outside of the process who is trying to get others to 'play nicely' (except the dating one). This seems unsatisfactory. Collaboration comes because the collaborators both really want to accomplish something which they can't do by themselves. Layer on to that the unknowability of system level change, and sometimes it will take a lot of discussion, exploration and false-starts to find action which people take together which they hypothesise will lead to the right kind of change.
How do you know if you're using your time well?
This question arises in different guises.
In the large state-funded body, where the people running the collaborative experiments are very new to this way of working, there is a need to justify the way they are working to their own line managers, and to the team who are holding the experiment in the middle. At some point in the future, evaluation and the main external 'client' will want to know too.
In the system-level initiative, the hosting body needs to know that funds and staff time are being well used, and all the participants will be making daily choices about whether to be active or whether to sit on the sidelines.
I ran a workshop for a well-known NGO some years ago, helping them to shape their internal monitoring and assessment process so that it would be fit for keeping an eye on complex emergent system change. We had a fascinating day, but it was hard to come to conclusions about KPIs or management information to gather which would be meaningful in helping the team decide what to do, or in helping the organisation decide whether to keep an area of work going. So much would come down to professional judgement, trust and even intuition.
And the question arises for individual change agents, as I have seen over the course of all my work in independent practice: am I doing the right things? is change happening fast enough, far enough, deep enough, wide enough? This is one of the four tensions which were explored in my paper for the EABIS Colloquium in 2008.
Frameworks, checklists, dance moves
In the training, we are using some great frameworks and checklists to help conceptualise the choices and possibilities which stakeholders are faced with, when exploring collaboration.
We have a spectrum of collaborative working, from information sharing to full mainstreaming of the shared compelling outcome in both (all) the collaborating organisations.
We have a two-by-two matrix plotting whether, for a given compelling outcome, the organisation in question can accomplish it alone or can only do it with others; against whether there are any 'others' who want to collaborate to achieve that outcome.
We have guidance on what to think about when setting up a 'holding group' to keep an overview of the collaborative work.
At some point this will come into the public domain and I'll add links.
And we also know, from experience and the writings of others, that sometimes all you can do is put in place the conditions, hold a process lightly and then wait. (Or stumble forward.)
I facilitated a workshop once, where everyone knew that they wanted to work together on something, but they didn't know what. They were all lawyers of one kind or another: barristers in private practice, in-house legal eagles for NGOs, members of the judiciary. They shared an interest in human rights and climate change. They shared a suspiscion that existing human rights legislation (including conventions) and existing courts which hear human rights cases (including some international ones) might be a good way to take forward cases which would catalyse action to reduce emissions and ensure victims of the impact of climate change get proper help.
During the workshop they shared information and stories, hoping that they would find one exciting thing to work on which had real potential. They discussed the detail of different legal approaches, what a perfect case would need to look like, the pros and cons of bringing cases in different jurisdictions.
As the workshop went on through its first day and towards lunch on the second day, they still hadn't found it.
And then suddenly they had!
How did that happen?
What did they do to find the focus? What did I do to help?
I don't know. Nothing different than we had been doing for a day and a half.
It was like that moment when you find the house keys. We had been looking and looking in all the right places and all the right ways. It wasn't that we started looking better just before we found them. It's just that we finally found them.
(It's funny how they're always in the last place you look.)
I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of Peggy Holman's new book, Engaging Emergence. Many readers will know Peggy as one of the authors of The Change Handbook, along with Tom Devane and Steven Cady. I read it in bursts, and every chapter has something comforting and challenging in it. Peggy asks
"What if tensions inspired curiosity? What if we knew how to express our anger, fear, or grief so that it contributed to something better?"
There's so much anger, fear and grief in conversations about ecosystem collapse. I'd love it if that negative emotion could be composted into the fertile soil where new things grow. There are positive reframings of disturbance and disruption.
I relished the permission she gives to let go of the things which bore or scare us, but which we do out of a misplaced sense of duty, and to embrace the aspects of the system which we are really interested in:
"Take responsibility for what you love as an act of service."
I am developing some training on collaboration at the moment, and this exhortation to hold what's important to you, whilst also deeply hearing what's important to other people will become a theme, I'm sure.
An interesting footnote on why I was sent a copy: Peggy wrote the book as a blog, and invited anyone who wanted to post comments. Because I interacted with this, I was offered a copy. Fascinating peer review process and marketing wheeze rolled up together. The blog (now inactive) is here and the list of all those who helped out is here.
Spurred on by discussions over at the Involve blog, I want to share a really useful framework for those of you who are thinking about engaging stakeholders or (sections of) the public while you decide what to do about something. At the start, discussions within the organisation which is asking for input need to establish clarity about what's alread fixed, what's completely open and what there are some preferences about but where there is room for change.
Pie Chart: Lindsey Colbourne
Not negotiable - At the start of your engagement process it is likely that what's decided (and thus not negotiable) may be at the level of overall objectives, and timescales. For example, a Government department may have a policy objective and a legal deadline to meet. A local council may know that it wants to revamp a local park, and have a potential funding source whose criteria it needs to meet.
Negotiable - You may have some existing preferences, ideas or initiatives which have been piloted and could be rolled out. There may be some technical information which will inform the decision or be used to assess options. There may be criteria which you are bound to, or want to use, but haven't yet applied to the options.
Open - There will be aspects of the decision which you have no preference about and where the decisions can in effect (even if not in law or within your organisation's own rules) be delegated to others.
Remember that you will also have decided-negotiable-open aspects to your engagement process - the people you talk to, the points at which you engage them, the methods and channels which are used.
The conversation you have internally with your team about what goes in each slice of the pie can often be dramatically useful: flushing out assumptions which have hitherto been hidden, and exposing disagreements within the team in the safety of your planning conversations rather than in the less forgiving gaze of stakeholders.
The pie slices shift over time
At the start of the process, it's likely that the 'decided' slice is slimmer than the other two. As the process unfolds, things usually shift from 'open' to 'negotiable' and from 'negotiable' to 'decided'. Principles and assessment criteria get agreed. Ways of working are negotiated. Working groups or consultation processes are established. Exploratory conversations crystalise into options which get fleshed out and then assessed. Some options get discarded and others emerge as front-runners.
Sometimes, things can move in the other direction: when opposition is so strong that you have to think again, or when new information emerges which shows that ways forward which had seemed marginal are now much more likely to work. In extreme circumstances, this may lead to the initiative being abandoned altogether. The debacle over England's publicly-owned forests is an example of this.
Tell people what's 'up for grabs'
There's no point asking people what you should do about something if you have already made up your mind.
By all means ask for feedback which will help you communicate your decisions more clearly. Understanding people's concerns and aspirations means you can address them directly in your explanations about why you have made a particular decision and how to expect to implement and review it.
Do people the simple courtesy of letting them know which aspects of situation you are most keen to get their feedback and ideas about - which information will most helpful in informing the decision, the dilemmas you'd like to think through with them, the innovative ideas you'd like to test out.
That way, everyone's time is spent where it can make the most difference.
Acknowledgements to Lindsey Colbourne and others at the late lamented Sustainable Development Commission, InterAct Networks, Sciencewise-ERC and the Environment Agency who have been developing and working with this framework over the last few years.
Why do we find ourselves in conflict, instead of in disagreement? One of reasons is the anxiety we feel when faced with uncertainty. Do we know the facts? Do we know the cause and effect relationships between them? How sure can we be that our actions will have the intended consequences?
I’m delighted to be able to bring you the latest words of wisdom on managing uncertainty, from Andrew Acland, facilitator and mediator extraordinaire and author of “A sudden outbreak of common sense: Managing conflict through mediation”.
“Uncertainty is a feature of many of the situations in which mediators and facilitators are asked to work for several reasons. First, our work tends to be in fairly complex situations, and often uncertainty is one source of that complexity. Secondly, any situation that involves human beings involves uncertainty: we are a tricky species. Thirdly, uncertainty creates conflict – which is why we get called for in the first place.
The purpose of this note is to suggest what we can do with uncertainty when it rears its awkward head in the middle of an already difficult meeting.”
Click here to read Andrew’s full paper.
This blog entry is written for a very specific reason: I've just advised a group of people to look at my blog for initial sources on multi-stakeholder collaboration... but reviewing the blog I realise that it'll be quite hard to find the things I mean, and some of them I haven't even written about yet! So, especially for them - and for you, dear other readers - here's a quick brain dump of key sources and ideas which I think form a good set of starting points, mostly from my own experience. Which means that if you have other great resources to tell people about, please do post them in the comments box.
There are some really interesting examples from the UK of the Environment Agency spending quite a lot of time and resources thoughtfully engaging in conversations with communities and other stakeholders when considering flood defences and coastal erosion risk. For example, Shaldon and Medmerry [transparency alert - I worked on the Medmerry project] where engagement with stakeholders was carefully planned so that people could influence the decisions which the project team was making as the plans developed. Both schemes are ongoing. See for example this report from the UK's Sustainable Development Commission which includes Shaldon as an example, and this short case study from the Environment Agency on Shaldon. A search using 'environment agency', shaldon, stakeholder and 'liaison group' will bring up other interesting views on the engagement approach and its success.There's a bit more about the EA's ground-breaking work in this area in this article on DAD/EDD.
Another place-specific collaborative approach is described in this article "Human Systems Intervention And The Natural Step" by Jenny Sardone & Magdalena Szpala, first published in AMED's Organisations and People journal. I believe that it's not available electronically, but I'm trying to chase down an e-version so I can link to it.
Much better known are the FSC and the MSC - now well-established multi-stakeholder organisations which tried to 'get the whole system in the room' to work out credible consensus-based criteria for what might be considered sustainable management of forest and marine resources. They have had varying degrees of success over the years in getting buy-in from all the different interests (environmental, social, economic). I wrote about the MSC a few years ago, an article called plenty more fish in the sea. Current examples include WWF-UK's Tasting the Future, Forum for the Future's work on tourism, and CPSL's work on both climate and insurance. Some of these have crystalised into organisations, others are more fluid than that: fellow travellers collaborating with intention.
Theories, techniques and patterns
Fascinating to ponder on what the circumstances are which bring about authentic whole-system engagement, and what you have to do to get the right people in the room in the first place, and then to keep up the momentum. The best resource I know of at the moment on this is Peggy Holman's Engaging Emergence. But I'm sure there are lots of others: please help me collect them by posting your favourites in the comments box.
Favourite techniques which can help include World Cafe, Open Space Technology and Future Search. I've blogged about the first big Tasting the Future meeting here, which combined a number of techniques.
SDC resources on collaboration, dialogue, engagement
Since its demise, it's really hard to find the engagement resources on the SDC's website. So here are some direct links to some of them:
- SDC's response to National Framework for Greater Citizen Engagement (2008)
- Final report on the SDC's Supplier Obligation stakeholder and public engagement process "Household Energy from 2011", with a description of process and findings. There are links to other documents about this process here. [Transparency alert - I worked on the Supplier Obligation project.]
- An independent evaluation report about the SDC's Engagement in Tidal Power process, which brought together stakeholders and the public to think about criteria and issues in harnessing power from the tides.
- The groundbreaking and really rather wonderful (for process geeks) guidance on designing engagement, published by the SDC but drawing on pioneering work done by InterAct Networks (Lindsey Colbourne, Lynn Wetenhall, Jeff Bishop, Richard Harris and others) and developed through practitioners at the Environment Agency among others. This work continues, for example through work Sciencewise-ERC has done with DECC.
- Some specific gems from this guidance include 'engagement and the policy making cycle' and a 'typology of engagement' and some definitions of different kinds of engagement. [More transparency - I work regularly with Sciencewise-ERC and as of 2011 am a Director of InterAct Networks]
Add your wisdom
This has been a very rapid post, and most of the examples and ideas are those which I'm personally familiar with. There must be lots of others, including some great compilation resources. Please use the comments space to link to your favourites and to critique what I've posted here.
As you may have noticed, I'm a process aficionado. I love to hear about innovative ways of helping people have the conversations they need. I love to try out new processes as a facilitator and a participant. I network with fellow facilitators through AMED, the IAF and a facilitators' group on linked-in. I read about unorthodox approaches, and sometimes I even try them with paying clients.
On Monday, I had the great treat of being a participant in someone else's workshop. There I saw for real - not in a training setting - open space, world cafe, graphic facilitation and live plenary mind mapping all used during the same meeting.
The event was the first 'assembly' for Tasting the Future, a collaborative whole-systems attempt to innovate the food system. It was organised by WWF, ADAS, the Food and Drink Federation and Food Ethics Council. Facilitation was provided by Hara Practice and Natural Innovation and other members of the hosting team. There were also some people doing graphic recording, from Intuitive Intelligence Training.
Some exciting conversations and actions emerged, and you can read more about them on the Tasting the Future ning. I'm going share some of the things I learned about process.
Dressing the room
When we arrived we sat where we liked at small tables covered with flip chart paper, with a small stack of coloured pens, crayons and chalk. There were small bowls of sweets and a colourful cartoon diagram introducing us to world cafe. And on each table there was a unique food or herb seedling, grown at Hackney City Farm, which you could buy to take home if you liked. Plants included apple mint, chamomile, lettuces, cabbage and tomato.
There was also this great picture story of our lunch: very appropriate for an event like this.
Setting the tone
There were a couple of phrases I scribbled down during the opening session. The hosting team asked us to be strong enough to work with our differences, to become a community of innovators, to speak with intention. We were invited to 'listen louder' if we disagreed with what someone was saying, so that we could better understand their perspective rather than blot it out with our own.
Following couple of rounds of world cafe, we were asked to come up with our best ideas about what we wanted to change in the current system. We wrote these on A5 size stickies, and these were then meta-planned (clustered) in plenary. Bear in mind there were over 100 participants, and the facilitators among you will recognise the audacity of this. The hosting team had mikes and runners, and the lead facilitator began as usual by asking for any one idea. She then asked people with the same idea on their sticky note to shout 'snap!'. This was a great way of gathering up the clusters very rapidly. A supporter did the actual sticking up, while the facilitator asked for the next idea. It didn't take long for all the ideas to be gathered and clustered.
Whole group mind-mapping
Another daring bit of process for such a large group was the method used to identify topics for the subsequent open space session on action planning. We all gathered around a long wall, where a large blank area of paper was taped up.
The focus question was posed: "Where do we need to take action?". (Actually there was an adjective in there, but my memory and my photo have let me down. Could've been 'where do we need to take collective action' or 'urgent action'.) Then the facilitator asked us to write our name legibly on a sticky note if we had an idea we wanted to add to the mind map. Rules for the mind map included that there's no such thing as a bad idea, it's fine to disagree with a previous idea, and the owner of the idea gets to say where on the map it goes. There were support facilitators collecting up the names so the lead facilitator could call people by name. Other members of the team had mikes and ensured each person making a contribution could be heard. Two of the team were scribes, with four colours of marker pens. As a new theme and idea was added, the scribes would write it up on the evolving map.
One at a time, those who wanted to offered ideas for action, and said whether they were twigs to add to existing branches, or new branches. This went on for about 30 minutes. It was beautifully controlled, and everyone who wanted to had an opportunity to contribute.
When the mind map was complete, we were each given three dots and invited to use them to indicate which actions we thought were the most important. Over tea, the dots were counted and around a dozen action areas were identified which had enough support to be the topics for the subsequent open space action planning session.
Over tea the room was rearranged so there was one large circle in the middle. The topics which had emerged from the mind map were written up on large pieces of paper, each with a number which corresponded to a numbered part of the room. The method of sorting out who went to which session was simpler than I'd seen before. There was no signing up of participants to different topics, or assigning topics to time slots. Instead, there was one 50 minute time slot. Within that time, participants could go to whichever topic they wanted, and leave it whenever they wanted. This is the law of two feet. Topics were hosted by volunteer hosts, who put themselves forward while the open space was being organised. If a topic didn't have a host, it didn't run. There was also the opportunity for hosts to offer additional topics, and I think one was proposed at this stage.
Very soon we were ready to go to our spaces and discuss our topic. The host had a prepared flip where they were asked to record key information: topic title, who hosted, who participated, three key points to share and actions the group would take (if any). The guidance was very clear on actions: they were to be things someone in the group had agreed to take on, not recommendations for action by others. As the facilitator said "We're the ones we've been waiting for".
As the day progressed, a team of graphic recorders captured the highlights in this lovely illustration.
There have now been three Assemblies and other meetings and workshops as part of Tasting the Future. Check out the prospectus for more details.