Second characteristic: decisions are shared

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

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

The kinds of things shared decisions need to be made about

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

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

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

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

You can’t force collaboration

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

Helping your team share decisions

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

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

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

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

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

Next time: it depends on great relationships.

Characteristics of collaborative working, episode one of six

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

Six characteristics

  • it isn’t easy
  • decisions are shared
  • it depends on great relationships
  • it requires high-quality internal working too
  • it’s a marathon not a sprint
  • success may look different from what you expected

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

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

It isn’t easy

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

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

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

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

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

 

It’s not all or nothing – there’s a spectrum of collaborative working

Does collaboration sound like too much hard work?

The examples of collaboration which get most attention are the big, the bold, the game changing.

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

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

So what kind of work might collaborators do together?

A spectrum of collaborative working

The useful spectrum of collaborative working helps get our heads round the easier as well as the more challenging activities.

Sharing information is a great way to begin – but surprisingly hard for some organisations which have a defensive approach. Yes, commercial confidentiality and data protection are legitimate reasons for not sharing. And some data handling systems mean that putting information in a form which can be shared and made sense of by another organisation can be a real barrier. But don’t let these things be a reason for not exploring what information each organisation holds which the others can benefit from. If it’s useful enough to the collaborative endeavour, then ways can be found to share information.

Coordination is the next level up – this will be either avoiding duplication, or duplicating on purpose. If you are going to clear invasive alien species from a river bank, it may make sense to avoid the annual regatta.

Cooperation means working together – it may make sense to time the balsam-bashing for a fortnight later and use the regatta to recruit volunteers and let people know what you’re doing. The boat club might even come too.

The next level needs a bit more commitment – a one-off project or even a substantial initiative which wouldn’t have happened otherwise, and is thought-up, managed and even funded jointly. The amount of input needn’t be exactly equal, but the collaborators are jointly responsible for making it a success and feel a sense of ownership.

More committed still than a one-off event or product is to collaborate on delivering a long-term mainstream service. This is about changing how an existing core service is designed and delivered, and it means sharing (i.e. giving up) control of something which, if it fails, will be seriously problematic. So it’s no wonder that it takes longer to build up the knowledge and trust on all sides and that this manifestation of collaboration is rarer. Notice that this is not about sub-contracting – although sub-contractors can and do work very closely with clients in some situations, that’s not what we mean when we talk about collaboration. The special features of collaboration come into play when all the collaborating parties have equal freedom to walk away but don’t, because they are all getting something they really want from the collaboration, and they can’t achieve it without collaborating.

And finally we get to mainstream strategic collaboration – not just for operational matters but as the new ‘business as usual’ for a core part of the organisations’ missions. This feels to me like the sort of multi-agency close working which comes into play with child protection issues – or is intended to.

As you can see, on the left are the less demanding forms of collaboration, which have a lower level of collaborative advantage. As you move towards the right hand side, the effort goes up, and so does the potential benefit.

And what inspiring outcomes they are providing people find that collaborative advantage! Protecting and maintaining ecosystem services, dramatically reducing poverty, limiting global temperature rises…. If the outcome is sufficiently compelling for the collaborators, and the wickedness of the problem demands it, then collaboration is likely to move towards the right-hand side of the spectrum.

Appropriate effort

But don’t be misled. The right-hand of the spectrum is not an ideal or goal. Horses for courses, and all that.

It’s not that one kind of work, or kind of partnership, is better than the other: what’s important to recognise is that you and your fellow collaborators need to discuss your options and agree what you want to do together, rather than assuming that your work will be of one kind and discovering later that others have a different assumption.

So bring the spectrum to one of your collaborative workshops and see what your (potential) collaborators think about where you are all working now, and whether that needs to change.

And good luck!

This post was first published on the 2degrees website.

Collaborative Advantage

Collaborative Advantage needs to exist, in order for the extra work that collaborating takes to be worth it!

My colleague Lynn Wetenhall puts it like this, in training and capacity building  we’ve developed for the Environment Agency:

“Collaborative advantage is the outcomes or additional benefits that we can achieve only by working with others.”

Know when to collaborate…

When contemplating collaborating, you need to make at least an initial cost-benefit judgement and this relies on understanding the potential collaborative advantage. Chris Huxham in Creating Collaborative Advantage waxes rather lyrical:

“Collaborative advantage will be achieved when something unusually creative is produced – perhaps an objective is met – that no organization could have produced on its own and when each organization, through the collaboration, is able to achieve its own objectives better than it could alone.”

But it’s even better than that!

Huxham goes on:

“In some cases, it should also be possible to achieve some higher-level … objectives for society as a whole rather than just for the participating organizations.”

So collaborative advantage is that truly sweet spot, when not only do you meet goals of your own that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise, you can also make things better for people and the planet.  Definitely sustainable development territory.

…and when not to

There’s another side to the collaborative advantage coin.

If the potential collaborative advantage is not high enough, or you can achieve your goals just as well working alone, then it may be that collaboration is not the best approach.

DareMini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Who shall we engage, and how intensely?

So you’ve brainstormed a long (long!) list of all the kinds of people and organisations who have a stake in the policy, project, organisation or issue that you are focusing on. This is what we call stakeholder identification.

What do you do next?

Stakeholder analysis

Now there are lots of ways you can analyse your universe of stakeholders, but my absolute favourite, for its conceptual neatness and the way it lends itself to being done by a group, is the impact / influence matrix (download).

Notice the subtle but important difference between this matrix, and the one most commonly used by PR and communications specialists, which focuses on whether stakeholders are in favour of – or opposed to – your plans.  It would be inappropriate to use this for stakeholder engagement which engages in order to inform decisions, because you will be engaging before you have made up your mind.  And if you haven’t decided yet, how can stakeholders have decided whether they agree with you?!

Instead, the matrix helps you to see who needs to be engaged most intensely because they can have a big impact on the success or otherwise of the work, or because the work will have a big impact on them.  It is ‘blind’ to whether you think the stakeholders are broadly your mates or the forces of darkness.

Map as a team

Your list is written out on sticky notes – one per note – and the stakeholders have been made as specific as possible: Which team at the local authority? Which residents? Which NGO? Which suppliers in the supply chain?

You have posted up some flip chart paper with the matrix drawn on.

The mapping is ideally done as a team – and that team might even include some stakeholders!  During the mapping, everyone needs to be alert to the risk of placing a particular stakeholder in the ‘wrong’ place, because you don’t want to engage with them.  It’s self-defeating, because sooner or later you will need to engage with the most influential stakeholders whether you want to or not.  And sooner is definitely better than later.

You move the notes around until you’re all satisfied that you have a good enough map.

Intensity? Transmit, receive, collaborate

When the mapping is complete, then you can discuss the implications: those in the low/low quadrant probably just need to be informed about what’s happening (transmit).  Those in the diagonal band encompassing both the high / low quadrants need to be asked what they know, what they think and what they feel about how things are now, how they might be in the future and they ways of getting from here to there (receive).  NB those in the bottom right corner – highly impacted on but not influential.  Vulnerable and powerless.  Pay particular attention to their views, make a big effort to hear them, and help them gain in influence if you can.

Those in the ‘high/high’ corner are the ones you need to work most closely with (collaborate), sharing the job of making sense of how things are now, co-creating options for the future, collaborating to make it happen.  Because if they are not on board, you won’t be able to design and implement the work.

Prioritise and plan

Now you are in a position to plan your engagement, knowing which stakeholders need mostly to be told, mostly to be listened to or mostly to be collaborated with.

Review and revise

Watch out for people and organisations moving over time.  Very often the people in bottom right are the unorganised ‘public’. They might be residents or consumers.  If they get organised, or their cause is taken up by the media, a celebrity or a campaign group then their influence is likely to increase.

Those in the top left are potentially influential but unlikely to get involved because there’s not so much in it for them.  Your engagement plan might include helping them to see why their input is useful, and piquing their interest.

So stay alert to changes and alter your engagement plan accordingly.

Don’t be an expert – at least, not yet

The trouble with being an expert is that you are expected to come up with solutions really fast. Or you think you are. Doubly so if you’re an advocate or a campaigner.

You can be tripped up by your own assumptions about your role, and stumble into taking a position much too early. And once you’ve taken a position, it feels hard to climb down from it and explore other options.

Which can be a big mistake.

Don’t be an expert, yet

Pretty much every project you’ll ever work on has more than one noble aim (or, at least, more than one legitimate aim). On time, on budget. For people, profit and planet. Truth and beauty.

Not much point designing the shiniest, coolest, sexiest thing that can’t be built.  Or the safest, most ethical, handcrafted whoosit that’s too expensive for anyone to buy.  Or running an organic, fair trade eco-retreat which can only be reached by helicopter.

If a critical variable needs to ‘lose’ in order that the thing you have committed yourself to can ‘win’, you’ve set it up wrong.

Why set it up as a zero-sum game, when it could be that there’s a win-win solution enabling everyone to get everything they want?  (I could tell you about boogli fruit, but once again I’d have to kill you.)

Not everything is a fight

If you frame it as a fight, you’ll get a fight.  If you frame it as a complex problem with a mutually-beneficial solution that hasn’t been found yet – you may just get it.

But how can you help the conversation be a dialogue rather than a gun-fight?

You need to stay in that uncomfortable place of not knowing.  Listen well.  Ask questions.

Above all, maintain an attitude of respect, curiosity and trust.

Want to explore further?

I’ll be talking more about this at #DareConf Mini on 20th January – still time to join me and some awesome speakers.

And here’s a New Year’s gift to help: £100 off if you use code PENNY when booking.

Deadlines

Do deadlines help a group reach consensus? Or do they get in the way?

Yesterday brought the news that the latest round of talks in the peace process in Northern Ireland had broke up without agreement, the deadline having passed.  There’s a report from the BBC here.

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

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

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

Location, location, location

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.

The top table sits in front of the roll-away screen, which is faulty so it won’t in fact roll away. There is a plinth with all sorts of technology attached, which cannot be moved.

The room is very hot and there are no heating controls.  And the windows don’t open.

This isn’t what you expected, when you designed your day-long interactive, non-hierarchical workshop which relies heavily on being able to display multiple flips.

Sometimes a room is your friend: flexible, light, with expanses of working walls and a positive atmosphere.  And sometimes it’s just horrible.

And we learn work-arounds: tacking to woodwork, windows, picture frames; pinning things to curtains; throwing the doors open.  Even drawing pictures of windows and the great outdoors and posting them up, to bring some hint of daytime into the room.

Designing the ideal

But if I could conjure up my ideal venue, it would have easily accessible outdoor space with chairs and tables in arbours dotted around within easy reach through the french windows in the main room.  There would be fruit, water and a variety of hot drinks on tap all day, in a relaxing space with sofas and armchairs.  There would be a great veggie buffet at lunch.

The main room would be spacious with furniture which is easy to move and stack.  The walls would be smooth and white, with a surface that you can use blu-tack on without fear of it falling down or leaving marks.  The room would be big enough to hold all the participants cabaret style AND still leave room for break-out spaces around the edges.  No pillars would obscure anyone’s vision.  Large windows would fill the room with light, except when we need dark because something is being projected from the ceiling-mounted projector which can swivel around to project in any direction!

And the venue staff… Ah, the venue staff would be sunny, positive, accommodating and calm.

The whole place would be accessible to those who need to use wheelchairs or sticks or extra help with seeing or hearing.  It would also be accessible to people who want to arrive by bike, train or bus.

Is it too much to ask?

Over to you!

What are your pet likes and dislikes?  Which are your favourite venues and why?  Which should we avoid at all costs?

Free download: I have a handout on choosing venues, which I share with clients. You can download it here.

A moment of commitment – reflections on writing

Tempting and disconcerting in equal measure: being asked to write a book is such a flattering thing, dangerously seductive; being asked to write a book is such a frightening thing, because “what if it’s rubbish?”  Putting something in writing is a moment of commitment: hard for an inveterate hedger and fence-sitter like me.  (I couldn’t even decide between ‘hedger’ and ‘fence-sitter’, could I?)

Avoiding temptation, taking courage

In an attempt to stop it being rubbish, and to remind myself that it’s not me that’s being flattered – it’s the wise things I’ve learnt from others – I made a conscious choice to stand on shoulders of giants both for theory and for tips that really make a difference, when writing Working Collaboratively.

I found some great academic research and theory before I decided that I really needed to stop reading and get on with writing.  But it was more on ‘collaborative governance‘ (advising others on how to do things) than multi-sector collaboration to get things done.  Noticing that distinction helped me decide what to get my teeth into.

What kind of collaboration?

I knew I wanted to include examples, and there were plenty out there even from a cursory look.  But I wanted to find ones which were more than contractual, more than cause-related marketing, and which involved multiple collaborators not just two (you can’t change a system with just two players).  I wasn’t so interested in crowd-sourcing,  where the hive mind is used to generate multiple clever ideas which might be the solution, but stops short of putting collaborative solutions into practice. That feels like another form of consultation to me.

It’s not to say these are bad things: but to me they are less difficult and less necessary than when collaboration is a way to solve system-level wicked problems, where there is a need for simultaneous action by players who each bring a different piece of the jigsaw with them.

So I drew up some criteria and then searched for examples which both met those criteria and that I had a head-start with: knowing key players, for example, who I could be confident would at least read my email or return my call.

Hearty thanks to everyone who made time to be interviewed or to give me their perspective on some of the examples.

Book writing as a project

The project has followed a pattern I’m now pretty familiar with, in my consulting, training and facilitation work:

  • excitement and disbelief at being invited to do such a cool thing;
  • fear that I’ll have nothing interesting or useful enough to say;
  • writing myself a little aide memoire to keep those pesky internal voices at bay;
  • mind mapping key points and allocating word count (in a training or facilitation situation, that would allocating minutes!);
  • less familiar was the long research phase, which is not something have to do very often and was a real luxury;
  • identifying examples and interviewees.

Then the actual creativity begins: knitting new things, finding scraps of existing articles, handouts or blogs to recycle and stitching it together like a quilt with additional embroidery and applique. I start committing myself to a narrative thread, to a point of view, to some definitive statements.

Then the first of many moments of truth: sending the draft off and nervously awaiting the feedback – sitting over my email until it arrives and then putting off the moment of actually opening it and reading the response.

Altering and amending the draft in response to that feedback and to my own nagging unhappiness with how I’ve captured something which may be very hard to pin down.

And then there’s a dip: the boredom as I get too familiar with the material: is there anything new here? Will anyone else find it interesting?

At that point I know I need to leave it all to settle for a bit and come back to it fresh after some weeks.  Fortunately, when I did, I felt “yes, this is what I wanted to say, this is how I wanted to say it” and crucially: “this has got things in it that readers will find useful, amusing, novel, easy to understand.”

Collaboration of goodwill

It’s sobering and enlightening to remember how much goodwill was involved – interviewees, people who gave me permission to use models and frameworks; anonymous and other reviewers; people helping to get the word out about it.  There was a lot of swapping favours and continuing to build and reinforce working relationships.  It might be possible to analyse these all down to hard-nosed motivations, but I think much of it was trust-based and fuelled by enthusiasm for the topic and a long history of comfortable working relationships.

What did I say?

As an author, it feels as if the project is ended when the final proofs go back to the publisher.  But of course it doesn’t, thankfully, end there.  Now that I’ve been invited to blog, present or share expertise off the back of the book (e.g. Green Mondays, MAFN, DareConf) I have to remind myself of what I’ve written!  Because your thinking doesn’t stand still, nor should it.

 

 

Penny’s blog

Portrait of Penny

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