A quantum shift in thinking

Collaboration is the new competition – Reading this headline I sensed something exciting, a welcome shift in thinking. On January 10, 2013 The Harvard Business Review Blog posted this article written by Ben Hecht, President & CEO of Living Cities. This organization deploys a unique blend of more than $140 million in grants, loans and influence to re-engineer obsolete public systems and connect low-income people and underinvested places, to opportunity. 

The fundamental premise that underlies their work is that of collaboration between multi-stakeholder partners – they “harness collective knowledge”. Put in plain terms it means organizations and people from opposite ends of the spectrum work together to address challenges and create new solutions.

Mr. Hecht offers five lessons for driving large-scale social change through collaboration that I want to share because they are fundamental for us to understand in order to be able to practice them in all aspects of our lives. Collaboration is a practice; it demands that we learn how to listen deeply, to others.

1. Clearly define what you can do together

– As Dana O’Donovan of the Monitor Institute has noted, many organizations find   collaboration to be messy and time-consuming. From the very beginning, you must develop clarity of purpose and articulate, “What can we do together that we could not do alone?” Often, this means thinking beyond individual projects to whole solutions and big, bold ideas.

As an individual this means being aware of the limitations of our own personal interest and having the ability to look beyond ourselves to create something larger, by working together. In this initial stage explore how added value will be created through collaboration and take time at the outset and throughout the process to solicit, listen and communicate expectations around this collaboration.

2. Transcend parochialism

– According to Mr. Hecht even the most well intended collaboration is often crippled by parochialism. Individual organizations earmark their participation and resources for activities that perfectly align with their own work or they use the collaboration platform as a way to get other participants to fund their own priorities.

Parochialism refers to being narrow in scope, or considering only small sections of an issue. As a facilitator, working with CEOs and teams, an important part of my job is to ensure all the issues are looked at from a multitude of different perspectives. Numerous tools exist to support this, one that I find particularly effective and enjoy was created by Edward de Bono: The Six Thinking Hats. Each hat represents a perspective and serves as a useful framework for cultivating multiple perspectives. Numerous methodologies have been developed over the years in the private and NGO sectors to clarify meaning and build common ground. Having worked in both, there is no denying that the latter have the lead, as they have been involved in facilitating multi-stakeholder bottom up, dialogue for much longer.

3. Adapt to data

The complex, multidisciplinary problems that many collaborative projects tackle do not have easy fixes. These challenges require continuous learning and innovation and the use of real-time data to help participants understand what is, and isn’t working.

From an individual perspective, we need to ensure that we keep learning and improving our skills. Ensure that the relevant data is available and that all participants are clear on the criteria used to create it as well as to interpret it. When in doubt, have the wherewithal to step back, ask for feedback, adjust and adapt our thinking.

4. Feed the field

You have an obligation to share what you learn — both the results and the methods for achieving them. Share, share and share some more – this promotes learning and working together.

5. Support the backbone

Hecht states from experience that progress is best achieved when a “backbone organization”, keeps the group’s work moving forward. Staff at these organizations ensures that work is completed between meetings, track data, enable adaptation, disseminate knowledge, and build buy-in and ownership from all participants.

Individually we need to accept the responsibility of ensuring that the work gets done by competent members within the group with whom we can collaborate. Delegation and teamwork are key, as is recognition of the ongoing efforts of those working behind the scenes.

Still too often today collaboration is misconstrued or overruled by more authoritative ingrained command and control approaches. Collaboration needs to be clarified and reframed – I see this continually with the University students I teach and with executives and teams I work with. Often when looking at ways to collaborate, the immediate focus shifts to, how to “influence”. From this perspective most people rely on their hierarchy, power and status which creates a pushy form of collaboration, more akin to compliance. Constructive collaboration with people requires a different approach, one that looks to build a relationship, create trust and garners influence from  a track record of committed action.

The central underlying principle relates to how we as individuals choose to exercise our personal power.  Are we able to collaborate if we are only willing to look at the issues from our own perspective? Today we have the ability to share global perspectives and be inspired by the learning and actions of others. Today more than ever we can choose to reach out, learn and be inspired by the many creative collaborative initiatives taking place in energy, infrastructure, fundraising to name a few. Collaboration means building bridges to collective understanding, around common interest, as equals, who share a common future. From years of facilitation practice and development, I listen and look to find the opening within each person that can trigger a shift, in perspective.  The biggest barrier in the process is denial – lack of self-awareness maintains the status quo and impedes change.

Collaboration is the new competition – is a quantum shift in thinking to practice a new way of doing.

Nadene Canning, BSL Professor

Nadene Canning

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