There are phases, in collaboration

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

Learning sets, debriefing groups: learning from doing

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

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

Action learning sets

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

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

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

A debriefing group

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

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

For peer learning, not for making decisions

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

 

Agree to differ

 

I’m listening to Matthew Taylor’s Agree to Differ on iplayer.  It’s hard not to get caught up in the subject matter – in this case fracking – but I’m listening out for process.

I agree with Matthew Taylor‘s contention that in most media coverage of controversial topics “the protagonists spend more time attacking and caricaturing each other than they do addressing the heart of the issue”.  I also think that the orthodox approach, which is to set up discussion and disagreement as debate, with winners and losers and settled points of view, may be entertaining but is rarely a way of finding the best understanding.

In his own blog, Matthew writes about the origins of the radio series:

‘Imagine’ I thought ‘if we applied the kind of techniques used in mediation to shed much less heat and much more light?’ Vital to that method is requiring that the protagonists resist caricaturing each other’s position – something which immediately inflames debate – and focus instead on clarifying their own stance.

So what is the process that Matthew has followed in this refreshing radio programme?

  • Matthew is cast in the role of mediator, and our mediatees in this opening episode were George Monbiot and James Woudhuysen – one in principle at least in favour of fracking, and one opposed to it.
  • There was a round of introductions: personal, anecdotal and focusing on the very early inspiration rooted in childhood experience.  Matthew himself didn’t provide the same kind of introduction: he’s facilitating the conversation, rather than joining in. This helped to humanise George and James: it’s hard to take against these small boys with the mutual connections to woodpeckers (you have to listen to it!).
  • Each mediatee was invited to give a short opening statement, uninterrupted. A bit like a courtroom or staged debate, but also with echoes of the uninterrupted opportunity to speak that you might have in setting up a “thinking environment”.
  • We were told to expect exploration of the things the protagonists disagreed about.  This might seem counterintuitive: if what’s being sought is agreement, how does exploring disagreement help. But wait…
  • George and James were asked to summarise back the essence of each other’s argument, and to find something in it that they do agree with.
  • After a round of this, our mediator then summarised back what he’d heard about the remaining disagreement, and George and James had the opportunity to correct any misunderstandings in the summary.  James took the opportunity a couple of times.
  • At one point, Matthew sets out a ground rule, in response to James starting to say something outside the process: “The one rule we have here is that you’re not allowed to say what you think George believes.”  Nicely done, and an interesting insight into the process being followed.
  • This process was then repeated for a second area of disagreement.
  • So for each key part of the topic, we heard about areas of agreement (e.g. “in favour of nuclear and renewables” and “neither of you sympathetic to NIMBYism”) and we understood more precisely the remaining disagreement.
  • At the end, Matthew summarised back what would characterise the most extreme positions – investing in or protesting against fracking. Which I found a bit strange as the sign-off: perhaps the demands of the medium for positions and opposition were too strong to be ignored.

Linearity in an aural medium

I wondered about the limitations of radio (or other aural-only media) in that you can only focus on one thing at a time: no post-it brainstorms or mind maps here, where all facets of a question can be presented at once.  I find this very useful in face-to-face facilitation, for getting everything out on the table from all perspectives, before beginning to sort it.  Does the “one-at-a-time” nature of speech reinforce the sense of opposition?

Well done Matthew Taylor for bringing a different approach to understanding a controversial question.  Future episodes are on vivisection and the future of Jerusalem. Catch them on BBC Radio 4 Wednesday’s at 8pm and Saturday at 10.15pm, or on the iplayer.

 

Advice for the newly freelance

I have found myself having a lot of coffees with people who are on the path to self-employment. As someone who embraced this particular type of freedom over 16 years ago, I have a thing or two to say!

Some of these neophytes have taken voluntary redundancy amidst organisational shake-ups. Others are responding to new caring responsibilities. Some have just tired of trying to change organisations from within.

I just love these conversations.  It’s great to be asked for advice on a subject dear to your heart and about which you think you have something useful to say. And it appeals to the coach in me: asking questions to draw out what they really want from the change: their dreams and ideals; boundaries and fixed points.

Advice from experienced freelancers

So I asked around on twitter and some linked in groups, and got some great responses.

Most were about networking for support and leads:

“It takes a long while to build consultancy relationships, so start early, and keep feeding in new possible clients to your portfolio so that you have always got an eye on one year from now as well as the now.” Christine Garner

“I would suggest that your first piece of paid work (and your second…) will come from your network rather than any ‘advertising’ or external marketing you might do. The people who know you will be the ones to trust you first – and to tell others about you.” Mark McKergow

“I was advised (many years ago) to have a great, but short, answer to the question, ‘What do you do?’ My answer was ‘I’m a developer, I develop people!’ That often prompted a deeper discussion led by the other person, that occasionally led to work. So much easier than a long ramble about what I actually did.” David Shepherd, AMED member

“Start with the people you know, and build from there.” Edward Kellow

“Reach out to friends and acquaintances in consultancies/agencies, become their associate. This will multiply ways you get work.” Adam Garfunkel

“After 25 years in the field, I became self-employed 5 years ago. If I can summarize in one word, it is Contacts. Maintain and expand your list of contacts. Stay in touch with them, such as with a newsletter. Let them know you have your own firm and will give them the same level of service you have in the past (with perhaps, lower overhead). Get out there.” Marc Karell, Climate Change & Environmental Services, LLC

“It could fill a book! But perhaps the most important lesson I learned was that going independent should not and does not mean going it alone! If the work does not involve other people, find other people to interact with around the work. Get a coach to help step outside the work and think. Join an association. Get associates. These things helped me not to be isolated and continue to help me infuse my work with new, creative ideas and insights, and to not spend all my time in my own head!”  Chris Grieve

Some were about the kind of work you do, and how:

“Stay true to your own values [so you] project that you feel good about what you do” Christine Tuson

And some were very practical:

“Remember to invoice them and make sure they pay.” Christine Garner.

“Work out what income you need and how much work (in paid days per year at different rates) you need to do to achieve it, and use that as a personal KPI.” Christine Tuson

“Especially for women, don’t charge too little.” Julian Walker

And I can’t resist linking to Sarah Holloway’s blog post on the same topic, with her deeply practical “when you see a loo, use it”.

Glass half full?

I’d offer some contrasting advice on the ‘diary too full’ point. I know I have a weakness in saying ‘yes’ too readily, so I have practised saying no and enjoying the downtime. It’s time to spend with family, on community activity, or just clearing out the cupboard of mystery (everyone has one).

I’d agree more with these comments:

“Downshift. Make your home earn money. When you have gap days you don’t need to panic, it may be better to take that as a reboot yourself day. Oh yes, and enjoy the freedom it gives you. Good luck.” Nicola Baird

“Learn how to say no. when I first went freelance, I was terrified of ever saying no for fear of never getting work again, so found I over committed and worked silly hours. Took me years to have the confidence to say no.”  Pippa Hyam.

My advice

These are my top tips:

  • Network, use your contacts, tell people you are available, ask them for help and ask them what help they need.
  • Spend a little time daydreaming about your perfect, ideal work and then tell people that’s what you do / what you’re looking for.
  • Trust your own judgement – if you don’t seem to have the whole picture, keep asking questions; if the client seems to have missed something, mention it.
  • Don’t be scared of the money conversation – clients expect to have to talk about it!
  • Know your own limits, be it term dates and sports day, or the sectors / kinds of creepy people you don’t want to work with and stick to them – you are the boss!
  • Do things that challenge you and get support from fellow independents.
  • Find great places to have client or networking meetings for free – in London I like Kings Place and the Royal Festival Hall.

Networks

Over the years, I’ve got great support from a few organisations which are great for networking, both online and face-to-face: AMED; IAF; IEMA.  I have also started to check out meet-ups – an online way to find and set up networking events. For example, I’ve gone along to collaboration meet-ups in London.  Check out what’s available in your area.

More advice, your advice?

Please do add your own experiences, questions or tips, in the comments below.

 

How we do things round here

Organisational culture. Where to begin?

Like behaviour change and values, it’s one of those phenomena of human experience that promises to unlock sustainability if you can only work out how to harness it, but tantalises by just not being reducible to simple rules or mechanistic predictions.

The canny editorial team over at The Environmentalist invited me to write a two-part feature to introduce IEMA members to this scotch mist, and I love a challenge like that.  Even though I know the result will be partial and full of holes, I’d love to help people begin to navigate this treacherous territory with a few useful landmarks.

So I had a go, and part one is available here and part two here.

Essential sources

The research and planning process for the article was fun too, once I’d decided to focus right down on something manageable. (After all, this was for a 1,400 word feature, not a thesis.)

I chose to re-read Edgar Schein‘s classic Organizational Culture and Leadership. The resulting mind map of notes is two A4 sheets of close tiny handwriting. I also finally got round to properly reading William Bridges’ Character of Organisations, which I was introduced to by Lindsey Colbourne (I still have your copy Lindsey!) when she was helping Sciencewise think about designing approaches to public dialogue which match the organisational cultures found in Whitehall Departments and government agencies.  Her insightful background research report on the “Departmental Dialogue Index” is here and the summary paper containing the diagnostic tool is here.

Schein’s book is wonderful for its stories. I enjoyed being alongside him as a reader, as he gradually realises how little he understands the organisations he is exploring. He opens himself up to not knowing, thereby allowing himself to hear the new (more accurate) interpretations of the behaviours and artefacts.  There’s something of the anthropologist about him, understanding organisations by being present in them as a participant observer.

Bridges’ approach starts from a framework more commonly used to understand the individual – the MBTI’s contrasting pairs of judging / perceiving; sensing / intuition; extraversion / introversion; thinking / feeling.  He takes this and looks at how it might manifest in organisations.

This is arguably a less intellectually rigorous approach than Schein’s. I definitely find myself drawn to the open-endedness and ambiguity of the anthropologist. But there is also something attractively pragmatic in Bridges’ work. And the book contains a questionnaire that readers can use to assess an organisation – good for people (and organisations) which like applied theory.

Sharing TUI Travel’s journey

Many thanks to Rosie Bristow and Sarah Holloway who took the time to talk to me about how understanding organisational culture within TUI Travel helped them to tailor their sustainability work to be more effective.  As well as reading about this in my article, you can see the enthusiastic buy-in they’ve generated here.

 

It’s success, Jim, but not as we know it: sixth characteristic

“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.

Messy play

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.

Six characteristics

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 a marathon not a sprint: fifth characteristic of collaboration

It’s rarely a way of getting things done faster that you would alone!

If you are looking to collaboration to solve your speed problem, then you need to seek other solutions.

Fifth of six

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

Speculate to accumulate

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

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

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

What takes the time?

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

-      build relationships

-      understand the landscape of collaboration

-      understand the culture of potential collaborators

-      explore possible win-wins

-      establish ways of working (formal and informal).

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

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

Leaders – you can help

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

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

 

Collaboration requires high-quality internal working : fourth characteristic

Sometimes we’re drawn to the idea of collaborating because we are finding our colleagues impossible!

If this is your secret motivation, I have bad news: successful collaboration requires high-quality internal working in each of the collaborating organisations.

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

Why?

Selling the leap of faith

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

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

On message

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

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

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

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

Work arounds

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

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

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

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

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

Doing what you’ve said you’ll do

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

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

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

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

Third characteristic: it depends on great relationships

You’re not the boss of me!

Power is useless because collaborating is a choice.

Anyone can pull out at any moment. 

So holding it together during tough times depends on good relationships rather than hierarchy, money or other forms of power.

Aspects of great relationships

Good working relationships help people to be patient, make misunderstandings less likely and disagreements easier to resolve.  

Collaborators will be taking a leap of faith at the start: they need to see that others are matching their faith with commitment of their own. 

Everyone’s contributions need to be acknowledged and celebrated: it’s easy to damage relationships if this isn’t done and people don’t feel appreciated. 

Counter-cultural

But if this way of working is counter-cultural for some organisations, they may need help realising this and learning new behaviours.  In particular it’s useful if there are people who can model new behaviours which build relationships rather than relying on personal power, money or hierarchy.

Six characteristics

This is the third in a series of six characteristics of collaborative working. The series began with it isn’t easy, followed by decisions are shared. Still to come are

  • it requires high-quality internal working too;
  • it’s a marathon not a sprint;
  • success may look different from what you expected.

These characteristics complement other tips about collaboration that you can find in Working Collaboratively: a practical guide to achieving more, published by as part of the DoShorts series in 2013. The characteristics were developed as part of capacity building for the Environment Agency with InterAct Networks.

Second characteristic: decisions are shared

When one organisation is collaborating with another, both are doing so because they have chosen to.

Which means, ultimately, that either collaborating party can walk away if the collaboration is no longer meeting their needs.

The kinds of things shared decisions need to be made about

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

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

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

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

You can’t force collaboration

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

Helping your team share decisions

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

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

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

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

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

Next time: it depends on great relationships.

Penny’s blog

Portrait of Penny

Thoughts, updates, links, and essays on creating change for sustainable development.