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  • Writer's pictureRuss Gaskin

It's Not Collaboration as Usual...

We don't strive to be different in our approach to collaboration, yet people are often surprised by the seemingly counterintuitive approaches we take. After all, collaboration is fairly straightforward, right? You just decide on a topic, get people in a room, and have them talk until they figure it out. But I suspect you've found based on your own experience that truly effective collaboration isn't usually so straightforward.

In supporting the startup and turnaround of numerous collaborations, we've learned a few things about how the Collaborative Innovation approach is different than collaboration as it is commonly practiced. This table summarizes some key differences:

Let's take a closer look at those differences, along with some tools we use that might be helpful in your own work.

1. Begin with what everyone can agree to, or start with a powerful goal?

One of the key assumptions that people often make about collaboration is that they have to convince all the key actors in their community or industry to come to the table right at the outset (for example, "We can't change this supply chain unless we have the largest companies in our industry at the table.").

Unfortunately, after having done that, they often find that, after much debate and discussion, they've ended up with a "lowest common denominator" intent—that is, only the barest of goals and objectives that everyone can agree to. They often rationalize this by asserting that it's a good place to get started, and that the goal will expand over time.

The problem is that a weak intent leads to a lack of real energy and gut-level commitment to the work. After all, if your goal isn't powerful and compelling, why collaborate in the first place? Genuine collaboration is neither free nor easy. Only a powerful goal compels people to stay at the table and work through the complexity and mess together.

In Collaborative Innovation, we start with a very small group of people who are committed to systemic change and work with that group to draft a working goal that's MAST: Meaningful, Audacious, Specific, and Timebound. We then start testing that goal with others and attracting those who want to work on something that's truly meaningful.

For more on developing a powerful goal, see Designing a Powerful Shared Intent.

2. Have an “Open Door” policy or be selective in choosing participants?

What happens when you issue a general invitation to anyone who wants to join your collaboration (or show up to a network meeting)? The people who show up can fall anywhere from truly committed to just curious (to, in some cases, just there for a free meal). People who respond to an open invitation to join your collaboration are not there for the same reasons, they don't share the same powerful intent, and as a group they won't represent the system you're working to change. As the work progresses, those people who just showed up find it equally easy to not show up when they don't feel like it.

Think about the messages you're sending with "open" invitations:

"You can show up if you want (but you're not really needed for this)."

"You're welcome to come (but really only if you look and talk like us)."

"You don't have to have real commitment to this work to join us."

"We'll take whatever commitment we can get."

And keep in mind that an invitation that you consider "open" doesn't feel open to everyone. Often, the people who don't feel like they belong at the table with traditional leaders are the very people who can bring the most valuable and needed perspective.

We suggest instead being selective and highly intentional about who you invite into collaboration, being clear about what's expected of them, and ensuring that each person is truly ready to genuinely collaborate and commit to the shared intent. By being selective and inviting each person explicitly, you're actually being more inclusive and getting the diversity of people and perspectives you need to powerfully advance the work.

For more on selecting great network participants, see Collaborative Innovator Attributes.

3. Get the “decision-makers” in the room or get the whole system in the room?

People with power are often overrated in terms of their potential contributions to real change. They are often the people who are most invested in the current system, and they have the most to lose when that system is fundamentally changed. Instead of seeking traditionally powerful actors in your network, seek influencers and change agents instead. When you do seek to engage people in power, be sure that you're asking them to make the same commitments to the work as anyone else--for example, if they can't show up regularly for network meetings, have them empower another person from their organization to represent them instead (and make sure that the appointment person actually wants this—and that you want them!).

For more on identifying the real change agents in any system, see the Adoption of Innovation model.

In Collaborative Innovation, we focus instead on getting a full representation of the whole system we're working to change in the room. If you're working on solving the homelessness challenge in your community, you want housing advocates AND business leaders AND service providers AND agencies AND people who are currently experiencing homelessness or have in the past (all of whom need to be engaged with equity and care). There is much more power and insight in that diversity than any one person can bring to the work, no matter their position. After all, as Talleyrand once noted, “There is one body that knows more than anybody, and that is everybody.”

4. Work and then present your work to stakeholders, or work in real time with everyone in the room?

I far prefer stubbing my toe over seeing program and backbone staff doing work on behalf of network participants, and then trying to sell the analysis and plans to them. This staff-centric approach to so-called collaboration is pervasive and harmful, and it undermines the very reason for bringing together all that diversity in the first place.

Instead, in Collaborative Innovation, we support the network participants to do the real work together in real time in the room (even if that room is a virtual one). That means that the participants themselves are analyzing the system, pulling up insights about what's going on in that system, identifying and prioritizing critical "shifts" and intervention points, brainstorming solutions, prototyping those solutions, and make all the key decisions together in the same room. While we support their work with good inputs, preparation, process design, and tools, we should never do their work for them.

The result? We can leverage the rich insight that comes from combining diverse perspectives, the engagement that comes from designing powerful solutions together, and the many benefits of real ownership, which is much more powerful (and easier over time) than trying to get buy-in on staff-produced work.

Ownership and deep commitment doesn't happen automatically, of course. We have to build cultures of equity, inclusion, and accountability, but the good news is that this can be done.

For methods and tips on building accountability in your network, see Building a Culture of Accountability.

5. Keep pushing for alignment and pushing back resistance, or leverage the underlying tensions?

We all get frustrated with resistance; even the most understanding of us can find it annoying at times when people just can't seem to get on the same page as everyone else. The wonderful thing about resistance, however, is that there is almost always hidden wisdom in it. When we find ways to uncover that wisdom and the insight it holds about how to approach our work more effectively, we can create more powerful and resilient collaborations.

In Collaboration Innovation, we name the tensions that will show up on a group right up front at the very first meeting, such as:

  • Learning & Taking Action

  • Going Broad & Going Deep

  • Tight Facilitation & Loose Facilitation

  • Long-term & Short-term

  • Introversion & Extraversion

  • Being Data-driven & Being Intuitive

  • Doing work & Deepening relationships

And every network has its own unique critical tensions that come into play, such as the tension between expecting personal responsibility and providing social support when dealing with social challenges like addiction, homelessness, or unemployment.

Just naming those tensions and treating them as sources of insight, innovation, and genuine engagement can transform unproductive conflict and "spinning" into sources of the kind of conflict we actually want—productive conflict in which we are leveraging the wisdom in each stakeholder's perspective to get better, more complete, and more lasting solutions to the tough problems that we're working on together.

To learn more about the tensions that tend to show up on collaborations, see Creative Tensions in Collaborative Innovation.

6. Focus on programs that the decision-makers assume will be most effective, or build empathy and insights about what people are really experiencing?

Leaders rarely fail to bring their favored solutions to the work, and it seems like the more powerful the leader, the more invested they can be in that favored solution. Unfortunately, favored solutions that aren't based on real insight about what's going on, especially in complex systems, are usually wrong, and leaders pushing their favored solutions up front usually produce unproductive conflict and increased polarization.

In Collaborative Innovation, we use several methods to help leaders step back from favored solutions and help the whole network develop shared insights about what's really happening. By leveraging the unique insights from both systems thinking and design thinking, we get two powerful views on what's going on: The systems level view (looking across the whole system) and the ground-level view (seeing the system as the people closest to the pain experience it). These two views allow people to identify the most powerful interventions to shift the system in ways that result in real and lasting changes in people's real experiences.

Diving deep into the real, lived experiences of people whose situations most need to change is a powerful way to step outside the system we're working in and get an "outside-in" view about what's not working. For example, it's one thing for service providers, agencies, and supporters of homeless individuals to talk about the experience of being homeless and devise solutions based on their assumptions; it's quite another to step into the shoes of someone who is homeless and look back at our (often disparate and disconnected) support systems to really see why they are not working. That empathetic view not only deepens people's commitment to solving the problem, it also helps them understand and overcome deeply-held biases and assumptions—and often see the system as it truly is for the first time.

We use many design thinking tools, especially empathy interviews and journey maps, to understand the experiences of those closest to the pain AND leaders whose behaviors need to change in order to fix the system. Contact us to learn more.

For tips on using human insight to understand what's not working in any system, see 10 Ways to Leverage Human Insight in Collaborative Innovation.

7. Just give people the information they need to fulfill their role, or build a collective view of the whole system?

Don't be stingy with the data, people. In collaboration-as-usual, we often see program and backbone teams operating on the assumption that it's better not to overwhelm key stakeholders with too much information. "Just give them the information they need to buy in to the solutions we've designed," the thinking goes. While that approach has merits (it certainly does keep things simple, at first), it actually weakens ownership of the problem and the emerging solutions over time.

One of the first steps in a Collaborative Innovation process, once we've defined a clear working intent, is to interview people from across the system using "System Leader" interviews. These interviews are designed to help us map the networks, barriers, assets, and emerging opportunities related to our working goal. They contain elements of empathy interviews (with questions like, "Please share with me a time you've felt really stuck in this work...") but they are also designed to:

  1. Socialize and test our working goal (which we invariably refine and retest across interviews);

  2. Learn about barriers and opportunities that will impact our work; and

  3. Help us identify strong candidates for the network.

Using the insights from these interviews, we develop maps that show what's going on across the system that we're going to work to change, and we share that map with network participants at their very first meeting. While we've boiled down the themes and insights, the effect is still profound—for the first time, people are seeing the whole system in all its complexity. The effect is two-fold: They feel kind of overwhelmed (not a bad thing) but they also feel excited and empowered when they realize that the "system" that seemed so abstract and distant, and we can actually change it! Realizing that the people in the room represent all the key parts of the system we want to change, and seeing powerful possibilities for actually doing that is the first step toward systemic change.

For tips on using system mapping methods to produce powerful shared analysis, see the following resources on the CoCreative Tools page:

8. Conduct research and data analysis and present it, or make sense of the system together?

Most of the networks we support end up creating a special team to focus on tracking metrics and measuring impact. That's why we always want at least two "quants" or evaluators in each network (those people who love making meaning from data and helping people make better data-based decisions).

However, we don't create that function right away because we've noticed that groups can get rather wrapped around the axle on data to the neglect of leveraging the diverse wisdom that's already present in the room, and to the neglect of starting to prototype and test solutions ("But wait! We can't make a decision on that until we have more data!"). Data is critical, but often the data we need doesn't exist and/or is insufficient to guide us in the most systemic interventions. So while we want a strong data analytics and metrics monitoring function in Collaborative Innovation networks, we don't want them to rule the roost either.

Though about half of the networks we support are self-funded (by corporate participants, for example), many Collaborative Innovation networks receive support from charitable foundations, and this support often comes with a professional evaluator. We have one principle for this situation: That any analysis and evaluation of the network and its work is done in partnership with network participants. Our logic is that the value of having third parties (even funders) evaluating a network's efficacy and strategy pales in comparison to the value of the network itself developing a strong discipline and culture of self-assessment, learning, and adaptation. Funders come and go over time but a strong change system that learns over time and integrates that learning to become more effective can last for decades.

9. Only make the solution after you’ve made the decisions, or prototype early and often?

One key difference between the Collaborative Innovation approach and collaboration as usual is how solution design and development happens. This is another area in which we often see "program mind" at work in collaboration-as-usual, where program or backbone staff are developing the solutions (or just finding off-the-shelf products) and then presenting them to network participants to get their buy in. We've seen many problems with this approach:

  • The solutions are often one-dimensional, and not fit-for-purpose (with the right support network participants can design much more targeted and robust solutions);

  • The solution set isn't multifaceted to address the interrelated nature of the challenge (network participants can design much more powerful sets of solutions in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts);

  • Leaders and organizations usually have to change themselves as part of fixing the problem, and the staff-led solutioning approach fails to get at this internal dimension of change.

In contrast, participants in a Collaboration Innovation network draft solution concepts and prototype their first products in their very first meeting, which builds momentum fast, fosters ownership, and delivers grounded learning early. They then work through multiple versions of their prototypes and solution concepts, first testing them with one another and then with outside users (those people who will need to eventually adopt them—who are often in the network anyway!). Once those draft solutions are ready (or ready enough), we do real-world pilots, which provide a way to minimize risks from failure and an opportunity to work out any final design elements.

We have many tools and methods for better brainstorming and prototyping. Here are a few:

10. Lots of discussion about big strategies and theories of change, or building the strategy as we go?

People often ask, however, how all these early prototypes and emerging solutions add up to a strategy. We ask in response: What is strategy, other than a set of actions that we believe will produce specific results toward our ultimate goal?

In Collaborative Innovation, we use an "abductive" approach to strategy, in which our network participants start from their collective observations about the system and then devise the simplest and most promising interventions they can ("minimum valuable solutions"). This approach produces momentum and fast learning, and is far more inclusive than the often highly conceptual debates that happen in collaboration as usual. If you've ever sat in a multi-stakeholder meeting in which 2-3 people discuss strategy while everyone else sits around making notes (probably feeling dumb, even though they aren't), you know what we mean.

In collaboration as usual, the assumption seems to be that we can somehow create some grand theory of change and deduce from that a powerful strategy, but here's the thing about theories of change: They're usually wrong. So rather than wasting our time on them (and missing out on the intelligent contributions of most of our participants), we choose instead to see the system together, evolve our collective thinking about the best places to intervene, draft workable solutions together to address those intervention points, and start testing our best bets in the form of a working set of interventions. Only in meetings 3 or 4 of a network do we then evolve a bigger, more integrated strategy (more on that—and our Strategy Maps tool—in a later article).

For our take on what makes a powerful network strategy, see 8 Elements of Good Strategy.

We have many more tools, methods, and mini-lectures that aren't mentioned here, as well as our training courses, and we're happy to share. Let us know if we can help.


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